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Closed at Dark

Contents

Books by Rob Blackwell

Copyright

Title Page

Dedication

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Eighteen

More Information

Acknowledgments

 

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Rob Blackwell

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The Soren Chase Series

[+ ][+(A Novella)]

Carnival of Stone (A Novella) (Sign up for Rob’s newsletter and receive for FREE here)

[+ ][(Book][ ][+One)]

The Pretender (Book Two)

The Last Blog (A short story)

[_ _]

The Sanheim Chronicles:

A Soul to Steal (Book One)

Band of Demons (Book Two)

Give the Devil His Due (Book Three)

Complete Box Set

[* *]

Audiobooks

A Soul to Steal

Band of Demons

Give the Devil His Due

[_ _]

To be notified of future releases, please sign up for Rob’s email newsletter here or find him at his web page and on Facebook.

 

 

Copyright 2014 by Rob Blackwell

Cover by Travis Pennington

Shakespir edition

 

All rights reserved

 

No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means including information storage and retrieval systems, without permission in writing from the author. The only exception is by a reviewer, who may quote short excerpts in a review.

 

This work is entirely fictional. Any similarity between characters and persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental and pretty much all in your head.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

*Closed at Dark *

Rob Blackwell

For Maia, who makes this all possible

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Chapter One

 

 

Sara Ignatius scanned the playground looking for her son.

He wasn’t by the swings, slides or merry-go-round, stirring a spark of panic within her. Even now that he was seven years old, she worried she could look up one day to find him suddenly gone. She’d taught Alex to be wary of strangers and she knew kidnappings were statistically unlikely, but she couldn’t escape the feeling that she might one day lose him.

She finally found him up in “the net,” a pyramid of brightly colored ropes designed to let kids climb in a safe environment. That was the idea anyway. A pole stretched twenty feet into the sky with a web of ropes attached all around it. Sara thought it was still theoretically possible for a kid to fall to his death. Alex had climbed almost as high as he could go and was looking down. He spotted her and waved.

“Hi, mom!” he shouted.

Sara waved back and repressed the urge to tell him to come down. She hated the idea of becoming one of those overprotective mothers who never let her child do anything remotely risky.

“Makes you nervous, doesn’t it?” a voice next to her said.

Sara jumped momentarily. She looked over to see a man standing next to her.

“Good God, you startled me,” Sara said.

“Sorry,” he said.

She recognized him, but it took a minute to remember how. He was the father of a kid on Alex’s soccer team. She thought the boy’s name was Chris, but couldn’t recall the parent’s.

“And yes, it does worry me,” Sara said. “I’m not quite sure why this contraption is better than just letting them climb a tree.”

The man chuckled.

“The tree might have branches that could break,” he said. “Of course, I suppose those ropes could too, but it’s safer because the county designed it to be.”

He said the last part with a smirk on his face to let her know he was kidding. He was short and stocky, but looked like he kept himself in good shape. His black hair was cut short so that parts of it stood up in the back. It gave him a charmingly boyish look that paired well with his easy manner.

Sara spotted Chris climbing near Alex and noticed that the two boys were now happily chatting with each other. She didn’t know if the boys were friends at school. Alex rarely gave her much information and her attempts to pry anything loose were usually met with monosyllabic responses.

“It’s nice to see you again, Sara,” Chris’ father said.

Sara smiled apologetically.

“Likewise,” she said. “I’m sorry, but I don’t recall your name. I feel awkward calling you ‘Chris’ dad.’”

“Richard Frye,” he said, and laughed. “But you can call me that if you like. All of Chris’ friends do.”

“I think I’ll stick with Richard,” she said.

“Looking forward to the first game tomorrow?” he asked.

She grimaced and he laughed again.

“I’ll take that as a no,” he said.

“Not sure why we need to have games on Sundays now,” Sara said. “I thought that was supposed to be our day of rest. To be honest, I was also hoping he’d go out for baseball this year. He may believe he’s the next Beckham, but I’m not sure soccer is his thing.”

“Has he tried basketball?” Richard asked.

Sara arched an eyebrow and heard her mother’s voice in her head saying something sarcastic about white people. Several friends of hers had asked a similar question and she couldn’t help but wonder if it was because Alex was black — or biracial, if she was being technical.

She avoided giving a caustic reply and shrugged instead.

“Nah,” she said. “We’ll get to that one day, but if he’s too uncoordinated for soccer, I don’t think basketball is the way to go.”

She didn’t add that with all the money she was spending on activities for Alex, basketball just felt like too much of a stretch. She had a decent salary, but it was relatively low for Arlington, Virginia. It wasn’t like basketball was insanely expensive, but every activity added up, and her pay was all they had to live on.

“Has Chris considered anything else?”

“No, he’s just obsessed with soccer,” Richard said. “He wants to do the travel team when it opens up for his age bracket next year. I kind of dread it to be honest. I find it annoying enough to have to go to a different field each week. It feels like the schedule purposely has you driving halfway across the county.”

“I hear you,” she replied.

They were joined by Maxine, another parent of a child in Alex’s class. Sara hadn’t even noticed she was standing behind them, but she broke in as if she was already part of the conversation.

“Well, there are some fields in this county I would never go to,” she said, sounding vaguely conspiratorial.

Richard appeared surprised to find her there as well. Sara always had to look away when she talked with Maxine. She was attractive enough, thin with brown, curly hair, but she had unusually large front teeth. Sara found it hard not to stare.

“Hi, Maxine,” Sara said. “How are you?”

“Well enough,” she said and sighed dramatically. “As well as I can be, at any rate.”

Sara wondered what that was supposed to mean, but was determined not to follow up. Maxine seemed to gravitate toward Sara whenever they saw each other at a playground or school event. Sara had tried to subtly discourage it by following her son’s example and giving only short responses to Maxine’s apparently endless stream of questions. So far, however, the tactic hadn’t worked.

“What do you mean?” Richard asked.

With what felt like immense self-restraint, Sara stopped herself from rolling her eyes. With Maxine, there was always some litany of complaints. If it wasn’t bad health, it was inept contractors working in her home or the crummy weather on her recent vacation. The worst was when she complained about the school. Maxine could find fault with anyone, from the teachers to the principal, even the janitor. Sara worried what it would be this time.

“Well, it’s this stalker of course,” Maxine said. “It’s only a matter of time before he successfully steals a kid.”

That won Sara’s full attention and she looked directly at Maxine. As usual, her hair looked like it had taken at least an hour to prepare and she was wearing too much makeup. Who put on foundation to go to a playground?

“What are you talking about?” Sara asked.

This was apparently the reaction Maxine was hoping for.

“You haven’t heard?” she asked.

Both Richard and Sara shook their heads.

“It’s all over the listserv,” Maxine said. “There have been sightings of him in McLean, Falls Church and several playgrounds in Arlington.”

“Sightings of whom?” Sara asked.

“A suspicious man with white hair,” Maxine said. “He’s supposedly trying to kidnap kids. There was a posting about it just this morning. A woman caught a man with white hair attempting to lead her son away.”

Sara felt goose-bumps break out on her skin. Maxine was describing every parent’s worst nightmare.

“What did she do?” she asked.

“She yelled at him and called the police, but the man ran off,” Maxine said. “By the time they arrived, he was gone.”

“Jesus,” Richard said. “That’s worrying.”

“He’s been seen all over the place,” Maxine said. “The police say they’re looking into it, but you know how they are.”

Sara thought the Arlington police were highly competent, but clearly Maxine disagreed.

“What does he look like? What else are they saying about him?” Sara asked.

“He’s apparently tall and thin, with white hair. He lurks on the edge of playgrounds and tries to interact with kids,” Maxine said. “He’s usually trying to convince them to come away with him. Supposedly he even yelled at a nanny who tried to stop him. But every story is the same. By the time the cops show, he’s gone.”

Sara immediately started looking for Alex again. He wasn’t on the net anymore, and he wasn’t by the slides or swings either.

“It could just be an urban legend,” Richard said. “You know how these rumors get out of hand.”

Sara was no longer paying attention. She looked all around the playground — and didn’t see Alex anywhere. She put her hand on Richard’s arm.

“Do you see Alex?” she asked.

“I saw him just a second ago,” he said. “He was talking with Chris.”

But he was no longer near Chris on the ropes. Sara scanned the playground several more times and started to look under the play sets. Sometimes Alex liked to go beneath a particular platform where there was a series of bells he could ring. But she didn’t hear any music this time.

Richard appeared to catch her panic.

“I’ll ask Chris where he went,” he said.

“I’m sure he’s here somewhere,” Maxine said.

The three of them walked over to Chris, who was still on the net, while Sara started to call Alex’s name. Her voice became steadily louder as she failed to find him. At first she thought she was being paranoid, but it was becoming harder to keep the alarm at bay.

“Chris, come here buddy,” Richard said.

The boy climbed down the ropes as Sara got down on her hands and knees to look underneath another one of the slides. There was nobody there.

“Chris, did you see where Alex went?” Richard asked. “His mother is looking for him.”

“Yeah, he went to find his father,” Chris said.

Sara stared at him in alarm.

“What did you say?”

“He wanted to go see his dad,” Chris repeated.

Richard must have registered the horrified look on Sara’s face.

“Is there some kind of custody issue?” he asked.

She shook her head.

“His father’s dead,” she said.

Richard’s eyes widened and he looked back at his son.

“Chris, I need you to listen to me very closely,” he said. “Did he leave with anyone? Was there anybody nearby?”

“Yeah,” Chris replied, looking from his father to Sara with an expression that said he didn’t understand what the big deal was. “It was a tall guy with white hair.”

Maxine audibly gasped and immediately started shouting for her son.

“Which way did he go?” Sara asked, fighting to keep herself calm. She had to keep it together while there was still time.

Chris pointed to a pathway through a small copse of trees by the playground. Sara made a move to start running into it, but Richard grabbed her arm.

“Don’t go in there alone,” he said.

“My son’s back there!” she shouted. “You call the police and follow me if you can.”

She tore herself from his grip and didn’t wait to hear a response. She started running down the path. She was hampered at first by her sandals, but she kicked them off, letting them fly into the nearby mud. She sprinted in her bare feet. With each step, she heard the same words echo in her mind, “You’re going to lose him. You’re going to lose him.”

Sara rounded a bend and caught sight of Alex forty feet away from her. He was turned away from her, walking alongside a tall man with white hair. Sara started screaming for Alex, but he didn’t appear to hear her. Instead, he just keep walking. The two were off the path now, heading deeper into the woods.

“Alex!” she shouted again, but he didn’t turn.

She ran as fast as she ever had in her life, desperate to catch up to them. She closed the distance remarkably quickly. Just as she was almost on top of them, the man turned to look back at her.

The first thing she noticed about him was his skin, which was so pale it almost seemed to glow white. It stood out starkly against the black suit he was wearing. Sara thought he looked like an undertaker who had hadn’t seen the sun in years.

His unruly white hair was thick and unkempt. It gave him a demented air. But it was his eyes that demanded the most attention. They weren’t a normal color; they were silver. She’d never seen eyes that color before. His irises appeared like two round shields. The expression in his eyes seemed hateful and angry.

Sara ignored him and grabbed Alex by the arm, yanking him toward her. He reacted in alarm.

“Hey, mom, that hurt!” he said.

She pushed Alex behind her and faced off against the white-haired man. She didn’t have a weapon, but she had some self-defense training and a surge of adrenaline so powerful she thought she could tear his limbs off if she had to.

“Get the hell away from my son!” she said.

The man seemed to tower over her.

“Your son is next,” he said in a deep voice.

Then he did the last thing Sara expected: he seemed to pop out of existence, vanishing in front of her eyes. One minute she was staring at him, taking in his weird eyes and tall frame, and the next moment he was gone. Instinctively she looked around for any trace of him, but he had disappeared entirely.

“Where’d he go?” Alex asked.

Sara didn’t wait to find out. She turned and grabbed Alex, hoisting him into her arms like she had when he was only two years old, and began sprinting out of the trees. She saw Richard and several other parents running down the nearby path and was grateful she was no longer alone. If the white-haired man showed up again, she would have help.

She waited until she was on the path before putting Alex down and looking at him head to toe. He appeared unharmed, but confused. He had the same expression that he wore when he woke up in the middle of the night. He seemed groggy.

“Are you okay?” she asked, paying no attention to the questions that Richard was throwing at her.

Alex looked around him.

“How did I end up here?” he asked.

Sara pulled him toward her and hugged him fiercely. She looked up at Richard.

“I saw him,” she said. “I saw the man with white hair. He was trying to take Alex.”

“The police are on their way,” Richard replied. “They’ll find him. They can help.”

But she thought of the way the man had disappeared and knew Richard was wrong. She remembered those silver eyes staring back at her and knew she wasn’t dealing with anything human. The police wouldn’t be able to help.

But she knew one man who could.

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Chapter Two

 

 

Soren grabbed the gun from the drawer of his bedside table and went to answer the loud knocking at his door.

The pounding was insistent and nearly frantic, and Soren couldn’t think of anyone friendly who would show up this late in the evening. He was always hired by e-mail because he couldn’t afford an office. And the last thing he wanted was for potential clients — or anyone else — to know where he lived.

He made sure the gun was loaded as the banging grew louder. He tried to look through the peephole, but it had been damaged during a scuffle at his apartment months ago, and he’d never had it fixed. He opted against demanding to know who was there. Better to fling the door open and catch his visitor off guard.

Soren quietly took the handle with his left hand, turned it, and quickly yanked. He simultaneously raised his right arm and cocked the gun, aiming it straight ahead.

He was completely unprepared for the person standing on his doorstep. She had her hand still raised mid-knock and jumped a little in surprise.

“Sara,” he said quietly, and lowered the gun.

She wasn’t alone. A small boy stood beside her, clutching her hand. Both of them looked scared and exhausted.

Sara recovered first.

“Is that how you welcome all your guests?” she asked.

Soren shook his head.

“I wouldn’t know,” he replied. “I don’t usually have any.”

He beckoned them inside and shut the door. He had a hundred questions, not the least of which was how she even knew where he lived. The last time he’d seen Sara was at John’s funeral, and even then it was at a distance. He had been forced to watch it from afar.

Sara was looking at him warily, still eying the gun in his hand. He gestured toward the sofa in his living room and she moved to sit down. Her son got there first and almost collapsed on it.

Soren disappeared for a moment into his bedroom and put the gun away in his bedside drawer, locking it inside a gun safe. He didn’t normally take such precautions when he was alone in his apartment, but he hated the idea of a small boy discovering his weapon.

When he came back, the boy had his head in his mother’s lap and she had her arm around him. He mentally calculated the boy’s age and knew he must be seven years old. But in that moment, he seemed far younger.

He pulled a chair closer to the couch and sat down.

“What’s wrong?” he asked.

Sara held his gaze for what felt like forever. She seemed to be searching for something in his expression, but he couldn’t guess what. To him, she looked almost exactly the same as seven years ago. Her black hair had been short and curly when they’d been in college. Now it was straight, and stretched down past her shoulders. But her face looked no older. She had beautiful dark brown skin and high cheek bones.

Even tired, frightened and confronted with a weapon, she still carried herself with a natural grace that seemed to elude most other people. He noticed the small scar above her right eyebrow, the result of a biking accident two decades ago. He could still remember the blood streaming down her face as she sat on the sidewalk. John had freaked out, but Sara was calm and collected. Even when she had to go to the hospital to get stitches, he never saw her cry.

It was funny how it didn’t feel that long since he’d seen her. He thought about her and John so much, it might as well have been last week. But looking her in the face made it all feel so much more real, and his grief — their grief — more poignant.

“I’m sorry to surprise you like this,” she said. “Maybe I should have called, but…”

“It’s fine,” Soren said. “If you’re in trouble, I want to help.”

It wasn’t fine, of course. He’d done his best to put distance between himself and his old life. He cared for Sara and always would, but he had assumed she’d never want to see him again. Her sudden appearance was jarring.

But he meant the other things he’d said. If she was in trouble, he wanted to know. He owed her a debt he could never repay. Sara nodded.

“You look just the same,” she said.

Soren smiled.

“Funny, I was just thinking the same about you,” he said.

He glanced down at himself. He knew that on the outside, what she’d said was probably right. He still had the same runner’s physique he’d had in high school and college — he worked diligently to stay in shape. He lived a strange and dangerous life now, making training and exercise even more important. He paid even less attention to his clothes than he used to, and his brown hair was still a tousled mess. He’d developed a fondness for wearing sunglasses, but that was about the only change to his fashion sense.

Yet he felt radically different, almost unrecognizable. The Soren Chase of so many years ago was carefree and happy. He couldn’t remember everything about his old life — a car accident seven years ago had taken some of that away — but he knew he’d had lots of friends and hadn’t lacked for female company when he’d desired it. The Soren Chase who lived in the apartment now was dour and solitary, focused only on his mission.

“I have a case for you,” Sara said. “I’m willing to pay…”

“You’ll never need to pay me,” Soren said, more brusquely than he intended. “And I’ll take the case, no matter what it is.”

He could see her shoulders sag in relief.

“What happened?” he asked.

She told him the whole story, a strange tale of a mysterious white-haired man who led her son away from the playground and then promptly disappeared. Soren listened to it without comment, nodding periodically. He didn’t take notes. He found his recollection better when he just concentrated on the client.

He was relieved that Sara passed all his usual tests. In his years as a paranormal investigator, he’d had to learn to quickly assess a client’s mental stability, lest he end up drawn into a case that was just a crazy person’s flight of fancy. But Sara hit all the right marks. She looked him in the eye and appeared suitably doubtful of her own story, but also confident of what she’d seen.

Even if he hadn’t known her as well as he did, he would have been sure she was telling the truth. He’d been wrong from time to time about his snap judgments, but not often.

“So,” she said when she stopped. “Am I nuts?”

Soren saw Alex watching him with big brown eyes. He thought about making a joke, but decided against it. Mother and child seemed too fragile.

“Of course not,” Soren said.

He saw her subtly relax back into his couch. Clearly, she needed someone to believe her.

“You’ve seen something like this before?” she asked.

Soren shook his head.

“No, but that doesn’t mean anything,” he responded. “The world is a strange and dangerous place. It constantly surprises me.”

“I don’t find that very comforting,” she said.

“Nor should you. What did the police say?”

“We spent most of the afternoon there,” Sara said. “They believed there was a stranger, thank God for that. The other boy, Chris, had seen the man standing just off to the side of the playground. He saw Alex talking to him.”

“But they dismissed his disappearing act,” Soren said.

“I think they thought I was hysterical,” Sara said. “Officially, the man ran off after I caught him with Alex.”

“Look, I know it’s frustrating, but it could be worse,” Soren said. “There’s at least a file on the guy now.”

“Apparently there already was. He’s been spotted in several playgrounds, but nobody said anything about him being a ghost.”

“Oh, he wasn’t a ghost,” Soren said.

Sara appeared startled.

“But I thought you said you…”

“Believed you? Yes,” he said. “I’m just saying it wasn’t a ghost. In the supernatural world, everything has a specific name. ‘Ghost’ refers to a trapped spirit who can’t move on from the trauma in its life. They tend to haunt a single location and have difficulty interacting with the living. There are exceptions, but what you’re describing doesn’t match. If he’s showing up at multiple playgrounds and talking to kids, the thing that took your son isn’t a ghost.”

“Then what is it?”

“Don’t know yet,” Soren said. “Did you notice anything else about him other than his white hair?”

“He was unusually tall and had pale skin,” Sara said. “Also, he had these weird eyes. They were silver, like coins. Or liquid mercury. They were awful to look at.”

Soren leaned back in his chair and looked thoughtful.

“Silver eyes…” he said. “Can’t remember where, but I’ve heard of something like that. I’ll look into it.”

“I don’t really follow,” she said. “If it’s not a ghost…”

It was Alex who spoke next.

“It was a monster,” he said. “That’s what he’s saying.”

Soren thought about lying to him. He hadn’t been around kids much, but he knew it was traditional to shield them from harsh truths. He decided it was better to level with him.

“Exactly,” Soren said. “And unfortunately, there are a great variety of them. It’s not always easy to know what you’re dealing with.”

Sara visibly shivered.

“I…” she started and then stopped.

Soren smiled. He knew what she was going to say. Even those who saw extraordinary things had a tendency to dismiss them. It was human nature. Very few perceived what the world was really like. If they did, they would probably go mad.

“Actually, I’d like to ask you a few questions,” Soren told Alex. “Your friend Chris said something about you going off to see your father. Why?”

Alex shook his head.

“I don’t know,” he said. “The last thing I remember was playing in the net with Chris. Then my mom was shaking me and I was in the woods. I don’t know what my dad had to do with it.”

Soren had just met Alex, but he’d known both his parents since they were six years old. The boy took after his mother in looks, with the same dark skin and curly, black hair. His face was like a miniature of hers, and even his body language was similar. Soren had a hard time seeing traces of John in the boy. He recognized the expression he wore, however. Alex was lying.

He decided to let it go for now. It might be that Alex was afraid of bothering his mother, or it could be that he was just scared. Either way, he wanted the boy to know him a little better before he tried to directly challenge him.

“Okay,” he said, letting his eyes linger on the boy’s face for a moment.

Alex yawned dramatically.

“What do you know about the Leesburg Inn?” Sara asked. “We’re going to stay there for the night.”

“You’re not going home?”

“The way that guy looked at me…” she said. “I had the feeling he knew who we were. I don’t want to go home.”

Soren knew she was probably right. He made a snap decision.

“Then stay here,” Soren said. “The Leesburg Inn’s fine, but it had an incident a few years ago that I don’t think would reassure you.”

“Soren, we can’t just show up here uninvited and crash at your place,” she said.

“Sure you can,” Soren said. “You two can have my bed and I’ll take the couch. I’ve slept in far worse places.”

“This isn’t college,” she said. “I can afford a hotel room.”

Soren looked into her eyes.

“The issue isn’t money,” he said. “The question is where do you feel safest?”

She paused for a moment.

“Here,” Sara replied.

“Exactly,” he said. “Now tell me what your car looks like and I’ll go get your stuff. You guys stay put.”

He thought she might argue further, but she told him where to find her car and he retrieved what few belongings she’d stopped to pack. Once he returned, he already found Alex tucked away in his bed, fast asleep.

“That was quick,” he whispered when he came into the bedroom.

“He’s wiped out,” she said. “The police threw all kinds of questions at him, even had him sit with a sketch artist. And ever since then, I’ve been afraid to stay in the same place for more than a minute. I keep worrying if I take my eyes off him, he’ll just…”

Her voice hitched, and Soren put an arm around her. It simultaneously felt natural and like the strangest thing in the world. He and Sara had once been close. This kind of interaction would have been normal back then, even though she was the fiancée of his best friend. But it had been so long since those days. Still, he kept his arm there, even if it now felt awkward.

“You came to the right place,” he said. “I can help you.”

She looked up at him and held his gaze.

“Thank you,” she said. “I know it’s painful for me to be here. I should have at least called.”

“I’m just wondering how you knew where I lived,” he said.

“Your father,” Sara said. “I’m afraid I caught him by surprise too, but he told me. Although he said it was ‘the last address he had.’ You guys used to be tight. What happened?”

Soren looked away.

“Same reason we don’t talk anymore, Sara,” he said.

“No,” she said. “Surely your parents don’t think…”

She stopped. Soren shrugged.

“I don’t know what my dad thinks,” he said. “But I’m clear on where my mom stands on the matter.”

“Oh, Soren, I’m so sorry,” she said. “I just assumed that they would…”

Soren pulled away. He was determined not to let it bother him. He’d done his best to bury the past.

“It’s fine,” he said.

“Oh, it’s definitely not fine,” she said. “I can talk to him, if you want. He sounded shocked to hear from me, but not angry.”

“They have their opinions. You’re not going to sway them,” he said. “How did you know I’m a paranormal investigator?”

“I found your blog, Soren,” she said. “I searched for you online a while back, and it was one of the first things that popped up. It was fascinating. From what I can tell, it sounds like you’re really well known among supernatural investigators. I saw something that described you as ‘one of the best.’”

“You wouldn’t know it from my paycheck,” Soren said.

“I just don’t know why you chose this line of work,” she said. “John was always the one interested in the supernatural, not you.”

Just thinking of John hurt. How did you recover from the death of your best friend? He knew time was supposed to be the healer of all wounds, but his still felt fresh. He could tell her why he was a supernatural investigator. It was the same reason she was a widow — or would have been if John had made it to the wedding.

He could tell her the whole story, probably should. But would she believe him? Would anyone? He could also say that he’d become “one of the best” investigators because he was trying to make up for failing John. He’d dedicated his life to that goal.

Instead, he willfully changed the subject. He wasn’t going to burden her with his baggage. She carried too much of her own already.

“You can sleep here as long as you like,” he said.

“I don’t know that it’s necessary,” she replied.

Soren took a deep breath.

“Unfortunately, I do,” Soren said. “Trust your instincts. You said you thought the guy knew who you were?”

Sara nodded.

“I don’t know how, but yes,” she said.

“There are creatures who could know that,” Soren said.

“The worst part isn’t that he grabbed Alex,” Sara said. “It’s what he said. ‘Your son is next.’ It didn’t sound like a threat exactly. It was more like a prediction. And it scares the hell out of me.”

Soren walked over to the bedside table, unlocked the safe and took out his gun again.

“I’ll be honest — it should scare you,” he said. “What we’re dealing with is unusual, and that’s almost always bad. But for right now, you need to get some sleep. I’ll be in the living room if you need me.”

“Soren, what is this thing?” she asked.

“I don’t know,” Soren said. “But I promise you this — I won’t rest until I find out.”

 

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Chapter Three

 

 

Soren shut the bedroom door as he left and went to work.

It was late, but that didn’t matter. There was no chance he was going to fall asleep, not with Sara stirring up so many memories. If he closed his eyes, he could see her waving to him and John as they drove away. It was the last time she’d seen John alive.

The case also intrigued him. He wanted to know more about what he was dealing with.

He grabbed his laptop from the kitchen, sat down at the dining room table and flipped it open. He didn’t bother doing research on ghosts. He was confident in what he’d told Sara earlier — this wasn’t their modus operandi. He was looking for a creature who could disappear, probably read minds and possibly tell the future.

Unfortunately for him, that wasn’t nearly descriptive enough. He came across at least a dozen monsters who fit the bill, but none of them matched the description Sara had given. Her reference to “silver eyes” also intrigued him, but pinning anything down proved elusive. He found nothing in the paranormal websites he visited. He also couldn’t remember where he had heard the description before. It was possible it was from another case he worked, but he couldn’t recall it.

Not that a failure to remember something vital was unusual for him. Ever since the accident, his memory was filled with holes. It wasn’t complete amnesia — he knew who he was and retained most of his history — but there were critical parts that were missing. He would just have to live with that. Still, “silver eyes” nagged at him. He knew he’d come across it somewhere before.

Yet after an hour of searching, he was finding very little.

He decided to try a different approach. Instead of focusing on the monster, he should look for the man. If there were sightings of a mysterious white-haired guy trying to kidnap kids, there were likely other mentions of it somewhere.

When he typed the description into Google, he was blown away. He whistled softly to himself.

“The man with the white hair” was everywhere — literally. He’d been spotted in at least 15 states, always near places where kids congregated, like schools or playgrounds. The descriptions were the same description as Sara had offered: very pale, unusually tall, with white hair. Some went further and described him as soft-spoken, but with a menacing air.

Soren found dozens of mentions of the man across various message boards, always from concerned parents claiming to have heard he was in their community. The messages were eerily similar to each other. The man always approached kids when they were alone and usually tried to convince them to come with him. The kids reacted to him differently. Some found him charming, others said he spoke with authority, like a teacher. But he always wanted to lead them away from other children.

Soren didn’t like it, and it wasn’t just because the guy was targeting kids. There was no doubt about it — the man with the white hair was his own urban legend. The entries lacked certain concrete specifics. They talked of what had happened to “their friend” or “a neighbor” and sometimes even “my sister.” What was missing, however, were entries from the actual people involved.

He could remember John telling him some story when they were kids. He remembered it only vaguely, but it was about a woman home alone with only her dog to protect her. When she woke during the night, she would reach down under her bed and the dog would lick her hand to let her know everything was okay. But one night she awoke in the morning to find her dog dead outside and a note that read, “Dogs aren’t the only thing that can lick hands.”

Soren had been unable to sleep when he heard that. After all, it was a true story. John said it happened to a friend of his cousin — and John seldom lied. It had to be true.

It took years for him to realize the tale was preposterous. Even assuming that someone broke into a woman’s house and then left her alone, why would it occur to him to lick the woman’s hand? How in the world would an intruder know the woman’s routine with her pet?

That wasn’t the story’s only flaw, but it was enough for Soren to challenge John. Eventually the truth of it came out — it was a friend of a friend. And, of course, it had never really happened at all. It was akin to the “vanishing hitchhiker” story or the one about the escaped killer with a claw for a hand. Everyone heard the tales, always passed off as real, but nobody had any firm details. The advent of the Internet only made the situation worse. Now stories could be passed like viruses and some of them even had the semblance of authenticity.

The man with the white hair seemed to fall into that category. Individually, the stories seemed plausible enough. But taken as a group, there was no way they could be true. There were reports of him in Texas and Kentucky at virtually the same time — and neither story had a solid source behind it.

There were also just far too many similar tales with the exact same permutations. There was a persistent one about how a nanny confronted the man after she spotted him leading one of her charges off the playground. According to this account, the man had chased the nanny when she grabbed her child back. The problem with the story was it popped up too often. Was it likely that nannies in California and South Dakota had shared the exact same experience?

All of this might have led Soren to dismiss the man’s existence altogether, but for two things. The first was that this wasn’t some fresh-off-the-street client or one of his blog’s many fans. This was Sara and he knew her well. She wasn’t given to flights of fancy. If she said she saw a man with white hair trying to kidnap her son, he believed her.

The second was a far more disturbing headline he came across during his research. Unlike the message board postings, this one was not vague or second-hand information. It was a bona fide news article published by The Oregonian. “Police Seek White-Haired Man in Connection With Child’s Disappearance.”

The article was filled with frighteningly specific details. A little over two years ago, five year-old Alastair Horne had vanished from his home in the dead of night. There was no evidence of a break-in, and his sibling, who slept in a bed next to him, heard nothing. All his parents found the next morning was an open window. The cops initially suspected a local contractor who had worked at the house, before briefly exploring the possibility that the parents themselves committed some crime. But their investigation apparently led nowhere. Alastair Horne was never seen again.

But before the case faded from the papers, the police launched a search for a mysterious “white-haired man.” It seems he was the subject of a disturbing encounter just two days before Alastair was taken. Alastair’s mother said her son was playing in the creek behind her home when she heard him talking with someone. Curious, she investigated and found him interacting with a stranger, who was urging him to follow him further into the woods.

When the mother intervened, the man grew “angry and upset.” According to the article, he told her, “Your son is next.” And then he reportedly ran off.

Only when Soren read the story, he had a strong suspicion the man hadn’t fled anywhere. If he called the mother, he bet he knew what she would say — that he just disappeared before her eyes.

The police never caught the man, but they were sufficiently wary of him that they published a sketch of his likeness. Soren was willing to bet that somehow this actual story had sparked the hundreds of other copycat tales that worked their way across the country. Probably unconsciously, people had stripped it of its vital specifics. The white-haired man had become the bogeyman for thousands of frightened parents.

Soren stared at the picture of the sketch. He tried to imagine the man with silver eyes, and felt like it triggered some memory. He was just at the moment of recollecting it when he heard a noise behind him.

“That’s him,” Alex said, coming to stand behind Soren. “That’s the man who talked to me.”

He was staring with wide eyes at the picture on the laptop, and Soren slammed the lid shut. He didn’t want the kid reading the other particulars of the case. There was no reason to scare him any worse than he was.

Soren turned and looked at the boy. In that moment, he looked like he was seven years old going on eighty.

“Are you sure?” Soren asked.

Alex nodded.

“Did he kill that other boy?”

Soren closed his eyes and cursed himself. He was so wrapped up in his own research, he’d never heard the kid sneak up behind him. He must have seen more than just the drawing. Soren opened his eyes and looked at Alex.

“I don’t know,” he said. “Maybe.”

“Is he going to kill me?”

He asked the question with an air of resignation, as if there could be no doubt what the answer was.

“No fucking way,” Soren said.

The swear word clearly caught Alex off guard. He flinched as if he’d been hit and looked at Soren with wide eyes.

“You aren’t supposed to use that word,” Alex whispered. “Mom doesn’t like it.”

Soren allowed himself a smile.

“I know,” he said. “But I was trying to make a point.”

He grabbed Alex by the shoulders.

“I’m not going to let anything happen to you,” Soren said. “You understand me?”

“But he’s a monster, isn’t he?” Alex said.

Not much tugged at Soren’s emotions anymore, but seeing this scared boy — John’s son, for God’s sake — broke his heart. He thought of John saying to him all those years ago, “We’re best friends forever. We’ll always protect each other.”

How old had they been? They couldn’t have been more than ten, but it didn’t feel so long ago. And John had protected Soren against the usual schoolyard bullies. It had been Soren who failed to live up to his end of the bargain. He was damned sure he wouldn’t do the same for John’s son.

“Fighting monsters is what I do for a living, kid,” Soren said. “And I don’t want to brag, but I’m really, really good at it. That’s why your mom brought you to me.”

“She said you knew my dad,” Alex replied.

Soren nodded, glad for the change of subject, even if it was painful.

“I grew up with your father,” Soren said. “We met when we were about your age.”

“What was he like?”

“The best man I ever knew,” Soren said without hesitation.

“Was he smart?”

“Very,” Soren replied.

“Funny?” Alex asked.

“He used to wait until I was drinking something to say something funny just so he could watch it come out of my nose,” Soren said.

“Ewww,” Alex said, but he laughed at the same time. “Did he like Star Wars?

“Of course,” Soren said.

Soren had too, once upon a time. But the accident had wrecked a lot of his memory, starting with TV shows and movies. He knew he liked those films, but he couldn’t remember much about them anymore. That was sufficiently weird that he didn’t feel like explaining it to Alex.

“I like Star Wars too,” Alex said, as if he were the only young boy who felt that way.

Soren grinned at him.

“Your father would’ve loved to have known you,” he said.

This won Soren a flicker of a smile, before it abruptly dropped from his face.

“What is it?” Soren asked, though he had an inkling.

“I lied to my mom,” Alex said.

“I wondered.”

“I told her I didn’t remember anything the strange man said to me,” Alex said. “But that’s not true.”

“What did he tell you?”

“He asked me if I wanted to meet my dad,” Alex said.

His voice had taken on a dreamy quality, as if he might not be entirely awake anymore.

“You know your father is dead,” Soren said.

The words were hard for him to say, and for just a moment, there was a brief memory of John reaching out to him, his friend covered in blood. But he banished the image from his mind.

“Uh-huh,” Alex said. “But when the man spoke to me, it was like I couldn’t remember that. It seemed like my dad was just down the path and this was my only chance to see him.”

“What else did the white-haired man say?”

“That my dad was waiting for me,” Alex said. “He said my dad wanted to take me away.”

“Away where?”

What Alex said next chilled Soren.

“To where my daddy lived,” Alex said. “My dad was going to take me home.”

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Chapter Four

 

 

A thin mist hung over the playground and surrounding trees when Soren arrived the next morning.

It was early and he wanted to check out the scene before children and their parents arrived. He knew word of Alex’s attempted kidnapping was likely to get around quickly, making any stranger — in this case, him — more noticeable.

There was nobody there when he pulled up. The air was wet and the playground equipment appeared damp, so he doubted anyone would be coming soon. Maybe it was just because he knew what had happened there — more likely, it was due to the weather — but the playground didn’t seem friendly and inviting. Instead, he thought it was creepy.

The swings moved slightly in the breeze, squeaking occasionally. The merry-go-round made a moaning noise as it turned. There was a sign nearby that read, “Closed at Dark.” He’d seen signs like that at plenty of parks and playgrounds before. For some reason, he always found it strangely ominous, as if it were a warning to children that this place wasn’t safe when the sun went down.

Soren had the unwelcome image of monsters waiting until dusk to come out and reclaim the playground as their own. In his mind, he saw a creature with sharp teeth climb up to the top of the net and look out to see if it could spot any straggling children who’d been left behind. The sign now fit with his view of the world. It seemed so promising when he was young, as if it were one big playground. But he’d learned that monsters were real and there was no such thing as safe.

Soren adjusted the sunglasses on his face and shook his head. He needed to stay focused. He inspected the various pieces of playground equipment. They were different from when he was a kid. For starters, the ground wasn’t dirt anymore, but a rubber base of red and blue that felt like he was walking on a sponge. The slides were no longer metal, but instead were made of sturdy, brightly colored plastic. Every edge was rounded and smooth, to prevent anyone from being scratched in the eye.

Soren supposed he should lament the old days and feel that kids should be kids, but nostalgia wasn’t his vice. Looking at the playground, it was obvious that designers had put a lot of effort into making the space safer while still being fun. As far as he could tell, it looked like they’d succeeded.

He was particularly intrigued by the pyramid of ropes. He found it amusing that someone had bothered to try and effectively create a safer tree. But he supposed it was more efficient. The pyramid would allow at least a dozen kids to climb on it.

He knew he should go back to his car and get out his equipment. His trunk was packed with the latest technology designed to detect the presence of the supernatural, including a full spectrum camera, an electromagnetic field meter and an EVP audio recorder. The only problem was that while he’d had plenty of successes on his cases, he owed precious little of it to the fancy equipment in his car. Every so often the meter had come in handy, but overall the equipment picked up so many false positives it felt like it slowed him down. Soren decided he wanted a better lay of the land first.

He stretched out his hands and pulled himself onto the rope pyramid. For a half second, he felt like a kid again, deftly moving up the cables as he climbed to the top of the pole. From there, he got a good view of the area, including into the small collection of trees nearby.

He understood the appeal of the pyramid even better now. A kid could look out and get a clear view of the houses well beyond the playground. They probably didn’t feel like they’d climbed a tree, but a mountain. He smiled in spite of himself. This thing was surprisingly fun.

His smile lasted until he glanced quickly at the playground below him. A figure was standing near a bench, looking up at him. It was the white-haired man, and he was staring at Soren intently.

Soren quickly scrambled down the cables, never taking his eyes off the man. The figure remained resolutely still.

But the instant that Soren’s feet touched the ground, the man disappeared. Soren ran to the spot where he had been standing and even punched the air in case he was invisible, but there was nothing. He suddenly wished he had his full spectrum camera, which was supposed to detect invisible entities.

He looked around him frantically — and spotted the man further down the path. Soren sprinted toward him, only to repeat the last performance. When he arrived at the spot where the white-haired man had been standing, he was gone.

When he looked further down the path, he had reappeared. This time Soren opted for a different approach. He smoothed out his jacket and walked slowly toward the man. It allowed him to get a better look at him. Sara’s description was perfect, and matched the drawing he’d seen in the newspaper. The figure was very tall, probably six feet five inches, and his hair was stark white. Soren had assumed this meant he looked old, but that wasn’t the case. He couldn’t guess his age. The man’s face lacked the normal signs of longevity. There were no wrinkles or scars; it was so smooth and pale it might have been alabaster.

Yet the man was far from expressionless. His silver eyes watched Soren with a mixture of hate and disgust, like he was a particularly unpleasant insect that had wandered nearby. As he came closer, he thought Sara’s description of them as “liquid mercury” was the most apt. The man’s irises seemed to swirl and move hypnotically. Soren stopped several feet away from him and glared back.

“What are you?” Soren asked.

The man’s lips curled into a cold smile.

“Interesting question, coming from you,” he replied.

Soren had no idea what he meant, but it was obvious the man disliked him. That was just fine with him. Perhaps now he’d come after him instead of Alex.

“What do you want with the boy?” Soren asked.

“You do not understand his importance,” the man said.

“To who? You? His mother knows it well enough.”

“His mother is weak.”

Soren felt anger stir within him. This thing had threatened Alex and now mocked his mother. Soren wanted badly to hit it. But he was still standing about fifteen feet away. He took a cautious step forward.

“You said he was next,” Soren said. “For what? What are you planning to do?”

“Do not think you can interfere,” the man said. “You are nothing and nobody.”

“Oh, okay,” Soren replied. “I’ll just give up then, shall I? When they ask me why, I’ll tell them it’s because I have low self-esteem.”

Soren took another step forward.

“You are pathetic,” the man said.

“That really hurts,” Soren said, putting his hand to his heart. “Here I thought we were beginning to get along.”

Soren took another step forward. The man continued to stare at him balefully. Soren’s goal was to keep him distracted as long as he could and hope he could rush him before he disappeared again.

“You didn’t answer me,” Soren said. “Why do you want the boy?”

The man cocked his head to the side and looked at Soren quizzically.

“Why do you care?”

“He’s a friend of mine,” Soren said. “That’s all you need to know.”

“You don’t have ‘friends,’” the man said, the last word coming out as if he’d spat it on the ground.

“Well, I am ‘nothing and nobody,’ so it’s hard to meet people,” Soren replied.

Soren took another step forward. He was just eight feet away, almost close enough that he could jump him.

“Stay away from the boy,” the man said. “He’s mine.”

“Like Alastair Horne?” Soren asked.

He was unprepared for the man’s reaction. Soren had hoped to inch a bit closer before throwing himself at the figure in front of him. But as soon as he mentioned Horne’s name, a look of pure, unfiltered rage crossed the white-haired man’s face. He closed the distance to Soren and grabbed him by the shirt. Without apparent effort, he lifted Soren to the sky.

“How dare you speak his name!” the man yelled. “You have no right to say it!”

Soren struggled to free himself but the man’s grip was like iron. He clawed futilely at the arm that was holding him. Soren tried to kick him, but the man held him too far away from his body. He felt like a bug on its back with all its legs flailing.

The man tossed him into the air. Soren landed a moment later with a thud onto the pathway. The wind was knocked out of him, but he was otherwise unhurt. He heard the man still walking toward him, talking the entire time.

“I should end your miserable existence.”

Soren tried to get up and launch himself at the man, but he was still out of breath. The figure grabbed Soren before he could attack and hurled him into the air again.

Soren saw a mixture of trees, blue sky, and pavement before he collided with the ground. This time he hit it harder and nearly blacked out from the sudden pain. He lay stunned as the figure came toward him again. He wasn’t sure he could take another hit like that. But Soren smiled anyway. He had exactly one more trick up his sleeve.

Soren pulled the gun out of his jacket, aimed it quickly, and fired. He pulled the trigger three times. He didn’t care where he hit his assailant, just that the bullets connected somewhere. But even as the gun fired, the man in front of him disappeared. All three shots missed; there was nobody there to hit.

He felt hands grab him from behind. He knew what was going to happen. The creature would hoist him into the air and smash him to the ground again, this time fatally. He thought of Alex and Sara. The idea that he would die without helping them was worse than the thought of his actual death.

Soren was finished. He’d encountered several monsters in his career as a paranormal investigator and always wondered which one would eventually best him. It looked like he was finally finding out.

He knew it was a lost cause, but struggled anyway. Soren couldn’t see his attacker but threw his elbow back and tried to throw him off balance. But unlike before, he felt the blow connect. He turned to face the figure — and momentarily faltered.

The person who had grabbed him wasn’t the white-haired man — it was a policeman. And the cop looked very angry. Soren quickly held up his hands in a gesture of surrender.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I thought it was…”

He didn’t finish the rest of his sentence. The cop hit him in the stomach and then clocked him in the face. The gun went flying out of his hands.

When he looked up, he saw several officers surrounding him. They seemed to come out of nowhere. One of the cops pointed his gun at Soren’s head.

“Go ahead and resist arrest,” he said. “I’d love to put a bullet into the brain of a child-kidnapping son of a bitch like you.”

 

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Chapter Five

 

 

Sara rushed into the police station, towing Alex along reluctantly behind her. She gave the officer sitting behind the metal detector an impatient look.

“Edith, so help me God, but I do not have time for this today,” Sara said.

The officer gave Sara a sympathetic look and waved her through. The machine beeped as she brought her purse and son with her.

“You’re just lucky it’s me and not Maria,” Edith replied. She pointed up the steps. “Ken warned me you’d be coming. He’s upstairs.”

Sara was frustrated and desperate to get going but heard her mother’s voice in her head about minding her manners.

“Thank you,” she said, nodding in Edith’s direction.

“Don’t mention it,” she said. “We’re sorry we don’t see you anymore.”

It might have been a pointed comment, meant to criticize her for breaking up with Officer Kenneth Sharpe, but Sara didn’t know if it was meant that way. She waved regardless and dragged Alex up the stairs behind her.

Even with her working knowledge of the station, it took her a minute to find the right location. She swept through double doors on the right and into an area buzzing with activity.

“Can I help you, ma’am?” the man behind the front desk said.

Sara didn’t recognize him, which was unfortunate. She opened her mouth to respond when a familiar figure came rushing up. Ken Sharpe was a massive guy dressed in an immaculate police uniform. He was beefy and muscular, his head shaved so fine she could see the sheen of the florescent lights reflecting off the top of his head. At six foot, two inches, he was likely an intimidating presence to any criminal he encountered. But Sara felt only relief as he walked up and hugged her.

“It’s okay,” Ken told the man behind the desk. “She’s with me.”

The phrase was almost painful coming out of his mouth. Ken was compassionate, intelligent and — if she admitted it to herself — a damn-fine looking man. The fact that she had a lot of issues had not been his fault.

“Hey Officer Ken,” Alex said, his mood improving dramatically at the sight of the police officer. “How come you don’t come around anymore?”

Great. That was just what she needed. But Ken once again saved the day.

“Oh, you know how it is, buddy,” Ken said. “Keeping the streets safe for you and your mom is very busy work.”

Sara cast him a grateful look and he smiled back at her. At that moment, she didn’t know why she’d broken up with him. Her mother never had either. She’d taken to Ken immediately, glad for once that Sara had brought her a boyfriend who fit her stringent criteria for a life partner, including that he was black. Her mother had always warned that a relationship with John, who was white, was doomed, based on outdated ideas about interracial dating. She’d been right on the outcome, but wrong on the reason why.

“Where is he?” Sara asked.

Ken frowned.

“Back this way,” he said.

The three of them started walking as Ken eyed her warily.

“I don’t think you want to be involved with this guy,” he said. “Do you know what he’s accused of doing? It’s not just today, trust me.”

Sara sighed and forced herself not be annoyed.

“I’m not ‘involved’ with him, okay?” Sara said. “I hired him to look into what happened to Alex the other day. And I’m well aware of his past. Take a look at the names on his rap sheet and you’ll see why. I wouldn’t be here if I thought he’d done those things.”

Ken nodded, but looked unhappy.

“He hasn’t been the most cooperative suspect,” he said.

Sara smiled involuntarily. Same old Soren, never great with authority. They walked through a series of doorways until Ken led them into a room where Soren sat across a table with three officers.

“Causing trouble?” Sara asked when she walked in.

“You know me,” Soren replied.

She did, but Sara was forced to admit Soren was different than he’d been seven years ago. He was still cocky and arrogant, but his edges were sharper. He’d always been prone to sarcasm, but now there was a bitterness to his tone that worried her. She’d stayed away because she assumed that’s what he wanted, but what if he’d taken the same approach? What if they’d both been keeping their distance for the wrong reasons? It worried her the way Soren had come to the door the other night. She thought he had gone and built a new life for himself, but from what she could tell, it was lonely and dangerous.

The officers started throwing a series of questions at her, but Ken quieted them down with a single hand gesture.

“We just want to make sure his story checks out,” Ken said. “Did you hire him?”

Sara nodded.

“Yes, just after the incident yesterday,” Sara said.

“Technically speaking, she’s not paying me anything,” Soren said.

“Yes I am,” Sara said.

“I’m not accepting your money.”

“I don’t really care about that,” Ken said, interrupting them. “Why did you hire him?”

“He’s a supernatural investigator,” Sara said. “And from what I’ve heard, one of the best.”

“He’s a fraud,” one of the officers said.

“Oh, I’m the fraud,” Soren said. “Let’s look at the police report on the attempted kidnapping the other day. I know what Sara told you. She said the suspect disappeared in front of her eyes. But I bet if we look at the report that’s not what you wrote down, is it?”

The cop stared back at him defiantly.

“We were trying to preserve Sara’s credibility in the event this came to court,” the cop replied.

“Right. By lying about what she actually said. I’m sure that won’t cause any problems if it ever goes to trial. Which it won’t, because you guys can’t catch this thing.”

“Thing?” Ken asked.

Sara could tell he was trying to keep the skepticism from his voice.

“I keep trying to tell you,” Soren said. “I saw him — or it, I don’t know — at the playground before you showed up and arrested me.”

“Sure you did,” another officer said.

“What’s your theory, guys? If I was the guy who tried to kidnap Alex, why would Sara hire me? Why wouldn’t Alex be shouting that it’s me right now? You know I didn’t do it or you’d never allow me in the same room with Alex.”

“You saw him?” Sara asked.

Soren nodded.

“I tried to shoot him too,” Soren said. “He vanished before the bullets hit him.”

One of the officers made a disbelieving clucking sound and Soren pointed at him.

“One of these days, you’re going to encounter something like this,” Soren said. “And then you won’t be sitting there sounding like a dying chicken. You’ll be shitting your pants.”

The officer rose to challenge Soren, and Ken waved his hand again.

“Sit,” he said.

“Just to be clear, I hired Soren. He’s not the guy who took Alex,” Sara said.

Behind her, Alex nodded.

“He’s daddy’s friend,” he said.

“Yeah, some ‘friend’ he was,” one of the officers said.

“Fuck you,” Soren spat at him.

He looked guiltily at Alex.

“Whoops,” he said. “Sorry, kid.”

“Anyway, you’re right,” Ken said. “You don’t fit the description of the suspect and Sara has corroborated your story. You’re free to go.”

“But Detective Sharpe…” one of the officers said.

Sara raised an eyebrow.

“It’s detective now?” she asked.

Ken nodded and she could see the pride in his expression. He’d finally done it.

“Good for you,” she said.

“I’d like the other officers to leave the room,” Ken said. “I can handle it from here.”

It looked like one of the officers was going to protest, but Ken stared him down. Finally, they reluctantly filed out. When they were gone, Soren stood up.

“Let’s get going,” he said, and started to walk out the door.

“Not so fast,” Ken said. “I’d like your help.”

Soren stared at him in obvious disbelief.

“No you wouldn’t,” he said.

“Yes,” Ken said. “I wasn’t aware of this case until today, but it’s my priority now. And I’m pursuing all leads.”

“I’m telling you, you’re not ready for this,” Soren said. “You saw how those guys reacted. You put any hint of the paranormal into your report and they’ll demote you within 24 hours.”

“Probably right, but I’m not worried about the paperwork,” Ken said. “Right now, I’m worried about Alex. Let’s stop what’s out there, and I’ll deal with the bureaucracy later.”

Soren looked at Ken as if for the first time. The expression was quizzical and confused, but he shifted his eyes to Sara. She felt herself blush.

“Oh,” Soren said.

She knew Ken and Alex wouldn’t notice it, but there was considerable emotional weight behind the single syllable he uttered. She wanted to grab Soren and shake him while telling him to mind his own business.

John was dead and Soren had exiled himself from her life. He couldn’t have been surprised that she’d moved on. If he was, then that was his issue.

The distress on her face must have been obvious, but Soren said nothing. He just stared at her for a moment. She couldn’t tell if the judgment she saw was really there or just a reflection of her own guilty conscience.

“I need you to tell me what you saw,” Ken said.

Soren turned away from Sara and sat back down again. He put his feet up on the table.

“Okay, but you won’t like it,” he said.

“Just try me,” Ken replied.

Soren looked defiantly at Ken while he recounted how he arrived at the playground. Sara tried to repress a shudder as he detailed the creature he encountered. She wished Alex wasn’t there to hear this, but she didn’t know what to do with him. She was afraid to let him out of her sight for fear he might suddenly vanish again.

Soren was clearly waiting for Ken to express disbelief, and there was an almost disappointed look on his face when the detective took him seriously.

“When you shot at him, he disappeared?”

“Poof,” Soren said, bringing up his hands in a dramatic gesture.

“Did any of the shots connect?”

“I don’t think so,” Soren said. “Whatever this thing was, he seemed to know what I was going to do before I did it. I assume it has some type of telepathy, maybe some precognition. It’s hard to be sure.”

Ken nodded his head as if this made perfect sense.

“You’ve seen this kind of thing before?” he asked.

Soren frowned.

“No,” he said. “I’ve seen other nasty creatures, but nothing exactly like this. I can’t shake the feeling that I’ve come across some mention of it in the past, but I’ll be damned if I can remember what it is.”

“Let me ask you something else,” Ken said. “Do you think it was after any kid, or specifically Alex?”

Soren glanced at the boy, who was drinking it all in. Sara wished he would lie, but knew it wasn’t Soren’s nature.

“He wants Alex,” Soren said. “He said he was his.”

“Why would he think that?”

Soren looked at Sara and she saw the uncertainty in his eyes. She wanted to grab Alex, throw him into the car, and drive as far away as possible. She wondered if that would help.

“I don’t know,” Soren said. “But if you’re really interested in helping to solve this…”

“I am,” Ken said. “Contrary to your assertions, not all cops are the same. Some of us have seen stuff we can’t explain. It doesn’t end up in the official reports, but it does happen.”

Soren nodded, looking impressed despite himself.

“There are two things that need to happen,” he said. “One is that we need someone to look into the case of Alastair Horne. He’s another kid who went missing two years ago. When I said his name, the creature reacted in a personal way. He seemed mad at me.”

“Why?”

“Got me,” Soren said. “I’d never heard of the kid until last night. I searched the Internet for evidence of the case, but we need someone who can go deeper. We need access to police files.”

“What are you looking for?”

“We know the case involved the white-haired man,” he said. “But I don’t know anything else. I’d like to see if some other similarity jumps out at us.”

“You said there were two things,” Ken said.

“If you start looking at the Horne case, I need to do more research on our mysterious friend,” Soren said. “I tried to hit the thing and couldn’t connect a blow. I fired a gun at it to no effect. From what I can tell, it could march right into this police station and we wouldn’t be able to do a damn thing to stop him.”

“Soren…” Sara said warningly, watching Alex’s face.

“Sorry,” he said. “But it’s the truth. If we’re going to stop him, I need to know what I’m dealing with. I have to know how to kill it.”

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Chapter Six

 

 

When the door to the Leesburg Science Society swung open, Soren was surprised to find a young man standing there.

“Where’s Terry?” Soren asked, sticking his head inside the doorway to look around.

“Who wants to know?”

“The guy who’s going to kick your ass if you don’t tell him,” Soren said. “Who are you?”

The man appeared unfazed by the threat. He was lean and wiry, and looked like Soren could push him over with one hand, but he leaned into the doorway and looked at Soren sullenly.

“I asked you first,” he said.

Soren sighed and resisted the urge to barge in. He didn’t know who this kid was, but he was already on his nerves.

“I’m Soren Chase, a fellow paranormal investigator.”

“Oh, he’s told me about you,” the man replied. “You’re the one who chases pretenders.”

“And other things,” Soren said, trying to keep the annoyance out of his voice.

“Uh-huh,” the man said dubiously.

“Where’s Terry?” Soren asked.

“I don’t like your tone,” the man replied.

Soren considered grabbing him and shaking the guy like a rag doll.

“How would you like my fist in your face?” Soren growled.

“I like your tone even less now,” he replied matter-of-factly. “You seem like a pretty violent person. Maybe you should seek professional help. I know a good therapist.”

“He’s not a man to trifle with,” a new voice said.

Soren turned to find Terry Jacobsen standing behind him. Terry was Leesburg’s original “ghost hunter,” a term he despised but which adequately summed up his vocation. He was wearing his usual bow-tie and old-fashioned clothes — he looked like his tailor hadn’t updated his wardrobe since 1954.

“You got yourself a partner?” Soren asked.

“Not exactly,” Terry replied. “My sister thought it would be good for her youngest to get out there and experience the real world. I’m not sure how it happened, but somehow he was sent to me. Soren, this is Glen, my nephew. Glen, this is Soren Chase. He’s a rather dangerous individual so I’m not sure you want to antagonize him.”

Glen eyed Soren up and down.

“Doesn’t seem that dangerous to me,” he replied.

“First rule of this business,” Terry said. “Looks can be deceiving.”

Glen shrugged, implying that he did not share his uncle’s point of view, and walked back inside the office. Terry waved Soren into his office. Soren stepped into the office and felt a tinge of envy. It wasn’t that the office was so beautiful, just that it existed. He was forced to work cases out of his apartment, which felt cramped and stifling. He usually met prospective clients at coffee shops just so they wouldn’t know where he lived.

Terry pointed to a chair in front of his desk and sat down. Glen sat on a corner of the desk, prompting his uncle to give Glen an irritated look that he ignored.

“What can I do for you?” Terry asked.

“Need some help tracking something down,” Soren said.

“Another pretender?” Terry said.

Soren frowned.

“I don’t just go after pretenders, you know,” he replied.

The look Terry gave him was somewhere between deep skepticism and pity.

“I don’t,” Soren said a touch too defensively.

“Then what are you chasing this time?” Terry asked.

“That’s the thing,” he said. “I have no idea. It looks and talks like a man, but he can disappear at will and probably read minds. Also, he’s incredibly strong and seems to have a thing for young boys.”

Soren gave them the run-down of the entire affair so far, starting with Alex’s encounter with the creature in the park and including his own run-in with him earlier that morning.

“Any of this sounding familiar?” Soren asked.

Terry shook his head. Soren was disappointed. Terry had been doing this for decades. Soren often thought of him as a walking encyclopedia of paranormal information. If he’d never heard of this thing, Soren was in deeper trouble than he thought.

“One thing I forgot,” Soren said. “The guy has silver eyes.”

“What did you say?” Terry asked, noticeably perking up.

“When you look at his eyes, they’re hypnotic. They seem almost like mercury.”

Terry stood up and immediately went to his bookshelves. Soren watched as he scanned various titles, obviously looking for something. He glanced up at Glen, who shrugged.

“Don’t look at me,” he said. “Usually he has all the stuff in his head.”

Soren waited until Terry found the book he was looking for. He pulled it off the shelf and then began leafing through it.

“Talk to me, Terry,” Soren said. “What am I up against?”

Terry ignored him for several minutes until he came to the right page. He stood there reading and occasionally muttering to himself, but Soren couldn’t make out the words. Instead, Soren just sat there, feeling helpless. It was not a sensation he was accustomed to.

Finally, Terry looked up, walked over to Soren, and handed him the open book.

“I believe what’s stalking the boy is a shade,” Terry said.

Soren looked up.

“I thought a shade was just another term for ghost,” he said.

Terry turned to Glen.

“Second rule of our business,” he said. “Names have power. Pay very careful attention to what something is called; it could mean the difference between life and death. The average person will use many names interchangeably: ghost, shade, wraith, wight, specter, phantom. To them, they all mean the same thing. And yet there are some important differences among the terms I just used. Confuse one with another and it will not end well for you.”

“Enough with the lecture, Terry,” Soren said. “Just tell me what a shade is. All I remember was that it was a Greek word for a spirit.”

“Technically speaking, that’s perfectly true,” Terry replied. “But the name evolved once we became aware of what these creatures are. Why don’t you examine the book you’re holding?”

Soren looked down and scanned the pages. There was a drawing that caught his eye. It wasn’t of a white-haired man, but of a woman. In the picture, she looked youngish, but was staring out from the book with a lost and forlorn expression. Her eyes were the most arresting part. They seemed to look right through him. The drawing was in black-and-white, but Soren knew what color the eyes were. He examined the entry beneath the picture.

According to the book, shades were related to ghosts, with one significant difference. They were the spirits of people who in life had psychic powers.

Soren understood how ghosts were created. If someone died with an unresolved issue or experienced such trauma that he or she couldn’t move on from the world into whatever afterlife awaited them, they became a ghost.

Shades were in the same vein, but their psychic abilities gave them abilities a normal ghost lacked. The average ghost was almost powerless, unable to interact with the living or move objects. Most never even wanted to — they were lost inside their own worlds, oblivious to what was happening around them.

But shades were different. They could turn corporeal as well as manipulate objects. Arguably the most important distinction was that they retained some of their psychic power, whether that was telepathy or precognition. Death appeared to even amplify those abilities, likely because their soul was free of the limitations placed on it by the human brain.

Shades were also conscious of their own demise and aware of what was happening around them. Still, like ghosts, they were often hung up on the same preoccupation of their mortal lives, whether it was the activity that led to their demise or an obsession that carried over after death.

The book carried a warning that such fixations made shades extremely dangerous. Despite their ability to read minds, they tended to view all living creatures with suspicion and sometimes acted out against unsuspecting mortals for no apparent reason. The book’s author theorized that as time went on, shades became gradually more consumed by their own obsession. They were known to become almost maniacal in their pursuits.

“Not good,” Soren said.

“It gets worse,” Terry said.

“It usually does,” Soren said.

“You said that his eyes were ‘hypnotic,’” Terry said. “That may be literally true. Shades aren’t made from just anyone with psychic abilities, but only those with a lot of talent. It’s possible he possesses the ability to compel someone to do something.”

“Damn,” Soren said. “Alex said something about the shade talking about his father, wanting to bring him ‘home.’ His father was my best friend growing up. He’s also dead.”

Terry nodded so quickly that Soren had the uncomfortable feeling the older man already knew about Soren’s past. He quickly dismissed it as paranoia. Terry was probably just agreeing with him.

“He wanted the boy to come with him,” Terry said. “He used his father as leverage. The boy likely dwells on his lost parent quite a bit.”

“Why are the eyes silver? Does that mean anything?”

“The ancient Greeks said it was because of the coins they put on the dead’s eyes to pay the ferryman to Hades,” Terry said. “I doubt that’s literally true, but it’s what triggered my memory. There aren’t many shades in the world, although this is the second that I’m aware of that has visited near here.”

“And the first?”

“The blogger who disappeared a couple years ago,” Terry said. “You wrote about him on your own blog, remember?”

The memory finally clicked in his brain.

“The silver eyes,” Soren said. “One of the ‘ghosts’ he saw, the one of the Civil War soldier. He had silver eyes. That’s where I’d heard it mentioned before.”

“You two lost me,” Glen said.

Soren had almost forgotten Terry’s nephew was there. When Terry didn’t explain, Soren filled in some details.

“Big case,” Soren said. “A blogger went into an allegedly haunted house in Leesburg and never came out. I never realized one of the spirits in there was a shade. Though that explains what happened to the blogger, I suppose.”

“What happened?” Glen asked.

Soren shook his head.

“You don’t want to know,” he replied.

“Shades aren’t necessarily evil,” Terry said. “They’re like people; they come in all forms.”

“The one I saw today was intense,” Soren said. “He was almost territorial about Alex — and Alastair, come to think of it.”

“As I believe you just read, they have a tendency to focus on a particular subject,” Terry said. “In this case, it appears to be young boys.”

“Awesome,” Soren said. “Just great. Some pedophile kicks the bucket and becomes a super-ghost.”

“Not that weird,” Glen cut in. “A friend’s basketball coach turned out to be a pedophile. My friend had no idea. He said the guy was charismatic and very persuasive. Probably some form of psychic mojo at work right there. And when your guy died, maybe it became stronger.”

“A good point,” Terry said, “but be careful about what assumptions you make. You don’t know why he’s taking these boys.”

“And I don’t care,” Soren said. “It’s going to stop right now. Which brings me to my last question: how do I hurt this thing?”

Terry shook his head sadly.

“It’s always the most violent response with you, isn’t it?” he said.

“Your nephew mentioned that a moment ago,” Soren replied. “Let’s not have this debate again. These are monsters; I kill them. It’s what I do.”

“The supernatural world is not just made up of monsters, Soren Chase,” Terry said. “You have to see the shades of gray.”

“I really don’t,” Soren said. “Ghosts, pretenders, shades — it’s all the same to me. They’re interfering in our lives, and someone needs to stop them.”

“That’s not always easy.”

“Tell me about it,” Soren said.

“I mean it literally,” Terry replied. “I’ve only personally encountered a shade once, and she wasn’t hostile, just confused.”

“How did you get rid of her?”

“I resolved her issue,” Terry said. “It’s the best way to deal with ghosts as well, though they are far less hazardous.”

“What happens when the issue can’t be resolved?” Soren asked. “This guy seems to have taken his taste for little boys to the grave. It’s not like I can give him a 12-step program, a hug and some therapy.”

“You will have to be creative,” Terry said. “It might help if you knew more about him.”

“Like what? His shoe size?”

“Stop being obtuse,” Terry replied. “The solution to problems is always more information. To stop this shade, you need to understand it. And if this is his obsession in death…”

Soren clued in and began nodding his head.

“Got it,” he said. “If he’s hunting kids in death, he was probably doing it before he bought the farm. At least I know what to do next. What do I do once I figure out who it is? I can’t just wait around for it to attack Alex again.”

“Shades can be summoned, but it’s unpredictable,” Terry said. “You’d need a summoning stone like the one I gave you not long ago, as well as some kind of personal artifact of the person who became the shade.”

“That doesn’t sound hard.”

“The difficult part is what happens once you summon the shade,” Terry said. “They are very powerful spirits and summoning them is akin to dragging them to you against their will. They are likely to see it as a personal affront.”

“Like I give a damn,” Soren said.

“You will if he begins tearing you apart,” Terry said.

Soren abruptly stood up.

“That’s good enough,” he said. “I can take it from here.”

He stopped on the way out the door.

“Thanks for the help again, Terry,” Soren said. “Glen, it was extremely unpleasant meeting you. I hope when I come back, you’ve found some other way to occupy your time.”

Glen responded by nonchalantly extending his right hand into the air as if he was going to wave, and then turning up his middle finger. Terry ignored them both and put up a hand to stop Soren from leaving.

“You said the boy, Alastair, was taken two days after he first encountered the shade,” Terry said. “And Alex first saw the shade a day ago. There may be a pattern there. If I were you, I’d move quickly. I fear you are running out of time.”

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Chapter Seven

 

 

Sara reluctantly let Alex run off with the rest of his soccer team onto the field. She nervously eyed the edge of the field, which was lined with woods. Normally she loved Arlington County’s devotion to preserving trees, but not today.

Ken put an arm around her.

“He’ll be okay,” he said. “I’m going to stand here the whole time and I’ll never take my eyes off him.”

“I thought you were going to keep an eye out for the stalker,” she replied.

“I’ll do that too,” Ken said and smiled. “I’m multi-talented.”

She hated to admit it, but she felt better with Ken around. She knew Soren was working hard to help her and Alex, but they had too much history for her to be entirely comfortable. Though she had known him a long time, he was also difficult to read. She couldn’t help wondering what he was thinking when he looked at her.

Of course, he probably felt the same way. She sometimes forgot how much guilt he was carrying around over John. Perhaps he was always wondering if she blamed him for her fiancé’s death.

With Ken, however, it was much easier. She knew what he was thinking. He clearly hoped this case would get them back together. He was also reassuring in a way Soren wasn’t. Soren seemed constantly on edge, while Ken appeared confident they could protect Alex. She didn’t know if she believed it, but she wanted to.

Alex appeared relaxed for the first time since the whole ordeal began. She’d mentioned something to the coach, who made sure to put Alex in the starting line-up. It would get him engaged quickly and probably drive all other thoughts from his mind.

She had resisted having Alex play at all, but her son had protested loudly when she said they would be skipping the game. After Ken’s reassurances that he would personally guard Alex during the game, she finally relented.

It also didn’t hurt that this soccer field was nowhere near the playground where they’d spotted the mysterious man. She had no reason to think he would follow them here — but she didn’t know what he could do. She thought about the way he had suddenly disappeared and shivered.

“It’ll be okay,” Ken said again, and she realized his arm was still around her.

“I think I’m going to go sit down and watch the game,” she said.

“Sure thing,” Ken said. “I’m just going to keep an eye on Alex right by the side of the field. I’ll check in with you later.”

Sara smiled gratefully at him and hoped he wasn’t getting too attached. She was pleased he was here, but she knew he was getting the wrong idea. She hated the idea of breaking his heart again. It had been incredibly difficult the first time.

Turning away, she walked back over to the small group of parents sitting on the sidelines.

Richard, who had been at the park during the incident, waved her over. He gestured to a folding chair next to him and gave her a charming smile.

“Have a seat,” he said. “Muriel went home to get the snacks for after the game.”

She sat down, grateful for the chance to get off her feet for a little bit.

“How are you holding up?” Richard asked. “Have the police found the guy yet?”

Sara nodded toward Ken, who stood on the sidelines close to Alex’s team.

“That’s the detective assigned to the case,” Sara said.

“Oh,” Richard said. “I thought he was your boyfriend.”

Far from scanning the perimeter, he was shouting encouragement to her son. He needed all he could get. Alex loved soccer, but he wasn’t particularly good at it. At the moment, the coach was yelling at him to get down the field back to the goal. Two seconds later, the other team scored.

She clapped automatically, cheering for her son’s opponents because that was what all parents were supposed to do these days. Good sportsmanship had to be “modeled by parents first,” or at least that’s what the rules said. Sara remembered her own father, who used to aggressively taunt the other team during basketball games — and he had been her team’s coach. He would never fit in with this new world.

“He’s an old friend,” Sara replied. “He took the case as soon as he heard about it.”

“And have they made any progress?” Richard asked. “Not trying to bother you, but I’m pretty worried too. I posted something about it on the Mothers of North Arlington listserv.”

“Good idea,” Sara said. “The more people who know about this guy, the better.”

“There have supposedly been a couple of sightings so far today,” Richard said, “but I don’t think they’re solid. You know how people get.”

She nodded. She thought of what Soren had told her about his research, the way the story spread from the incident in Oregon. She wondered how much worse it would be now. Someone on the Arlington listserv would share it with a friend on the Fairfax County listserv, who would share it with the Loudoun one, and so on and so on. Pretty soon the whole state of Virginia would be reporting sightings of the white-haired man.

“Do the police have any better idea what’s going on?”

Sara didn’t know what to say. She certainly wasn’t going to tell him the truth — ‘So, Richard, it turns out this guy probably is some kind of supernatural monster.’ She didn’t think that would do much for her reputation. But she didn’t want to give him the idea that there was no progress, lest that worry him and his family more.

“There was a similar case in Oregon,” Sara said. “The police are looking into that, trying to see if they can identify who this guy might be.”

“Wow, really?” Richard said. “It’s the same guy from all the way out there?”

“Seems like it,” Sara said. “Same description and circumstances, at any rate. The boy’s name was Alastair Horne. He disappeared and the white-haired guy is the chief suspect. They never found the boy.”

“That’s awful,” Richard said.

“Whoever this guy is, he’s very dangerous. Nobody should try to approach him alone.”

Richard nodded.

He turned at that moment to look behind Sara.

“There you are, honey,” he said.

Sara craned her neck around to see a small slip of a woman. She was carrying a large bag full of what Sara presumed were snacks. But she looked pale and nervous.

“What were you two talking about?” she asked.

Sara stood up and extended her hand.

“I’m Sara Ignatius,” she said. “Alex’s mom.”

“Hi,” Muriel replied absent-mindedly, but she stared at her husband waiting for an answer.

“I told you about what happened, honey,” he said. “I showed you the post I sent to the…”

“A tall, white-haired man,” Muriel interrupted. “I think I just saw him.”

“What?” Richard asked.

“I was thinking about the snacks and wasn’t paying much attention…”

“Where?” Sara asked.

She didn’t wait for a response, but looked back at the field. She saw Ken cheering for the team, but she couldn’t see a trace of Alex amid the cluster of boys scrambling for the ball.

Sara started sprinting toward the field and Ken on the sidelines. He was so busy watching the game, he didn’t even hear her calling him. She kept scanning the field, desperate to get a glimpse of Alex.

“Ken!” she shouted again, this time getting his attention.

He turned to her with a smile on his face. She almost wanted to smack it off him. He was supposed to be guarding her son, not acting as some kind of stand-in father, cheering on the team.

“Where’s Alex?” she asked.

She looked carefully at the kids fighting over the ball, but she could now definitively tell Alex wasn’t among them. She looked on the sidelines, but saw only Chris there.

“Relax, he was just taking a breather,” Ken said. “He’s right over there getting a drink of wat…”

His voice trailed off. Alex’s blue water bottle was on the ground, but he wasn’t nearby.

Sara looked up to see Alex far across the field, walking in the direction of the woods. She was momentarily relieved just to catch sight of him, but then she saw the figure he was approaching. Alex was walking toward the white-haired man.

“Alex!” she screamed.

Sara took off running, but Ken rocketed past her. Alex was walking as if in a dream, strolling leisurely toward the white-haired man who was beckoning to him. The boy didn’t appear to hear Sara shouting for him.

The man with the white hair looked up, however. Even across the thirty feet that separated them, she thought she could see his liquid silver eyes staring at her.

Alex was only ten feet from the man, who began striding forward. She knew in her heart what would happen if the man reached her son. He would grab him and they would both disappear. It would be the last time she ever saw Alex.

“Alex!” she screamed again, using the voice she reserved only for the times when he was in imminent danger. But Alex still didn’t respond.

The man was just about to grab Alex when Ken reached them both. He put an arm across Alex to block him, and drew his weapon.

“Get away from the boy!” Ken shouted.

The white-haired man never hesitated. He reached out and slapped Ken’s gun away like it was a toy, and Sara watched it fly into the grass nearby. Ken tried to punch him, but the man dodged the blow and shoved Ken out of the way. In theory, that should have been impossible. Ken was a muscular guy, and while the white-haired man was tall, he was also thin as a reed. To Sara’s eyes, it looked like the man barely touched Ken. It was almost as if he had willed the cop out of his way.

Ken stumbled and fell to the ground, but the distraction gave Sara enough time to reach Alex. She grabbed him from behind and held him in her arms.

“Don’t you touch my son!” she said.

The white-haired man paused and stared at them both. Sara wanted to flee, but the way this creature moved, she doubted it would matter. Instead, she just held on to Alex for dear life. She was not going to let go no matter what he tried to do.

The man stared at her. He seemed mostly impassive, but there was a look of contempt in his silver eyes.

“Your son is next,” he said.

“No,” Sara replied. “I’ll never let you take him.”

“You do not understand,” the man said. “I am not trying to harm your son. I’m trying to save him.”

Before she could answer, the white-haired man disappeared before her eyes.

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Chapter Eight

 

 

Soren stood quietly in his apartment while Ken kept apologizing to Sara. He wasn’t interested in the two of them, but kept his eyes focused on Alex. The boy was ostensibly playing with the zipper on his jacket, but Soren could tell he was listening to every word.

He wished he had some games or books to give the kid, but Soren didn’t even own a TV. His interest in that world had gone up in smoke seven years ago.

“I’m sorry,” Ken said. “I looked away for a moment…”

“A moment was all it took,” Sara replied.

Soren had heard this conversation twice already, and he imagined Alex had listened to it several more times. He looked at Ken and Sara on the couch and resisted the urge to hit the two of them.

“You’re both to blame,” he said out loud. “Can we please move on to something important?”

All three of his guests looked at him in surprise.

“Wait a minute,” Ken said. “Sara wasn’t at fault. It was my resp…”

“You made her feel safe,” Soren said. “So she relaxed a little. She stopped watching Alex as closely as she should.”

“Listen buddy, I don’t care how far back you go with her…” Ken said.

Soren looked at Sara and saw the hurt and indignation on her face. But he also saw her acceptance.

“He’s right,” she said.

“Great,” Soren said. “So that’s settled. Let’s get back to business.”

“No, I want to…” Ken said.

“I don’t give a shit what you want,” Soren said. “Your guilt is completely irrelevant to me. You both had a job to do, which was to keep Alex away from this creature. You failed. The good news is that Alex is still here, so we don’t need to sit here trading accusations and apologies while he listens in. We need to get to the bottom of this fast.”

Ken was opening his mouth to speak again, his face flushed with anger, but Sara put a hand on his arm. She nodded briefly toward Alex, who watched his mother with wide eyes.

“Drop it,” Sara said.

Soren remembered that tone of voice from when they were kids. Both John and he had learned quickly to obey her when she spoke like that, or suffer unpleasant repercussions. Apparently Ken had as well, because he shut his mouth.

“Good,” Soren said. “Because I want to get back to what the shade told you.”

Soren had filled them in on his conversation with Terry, though he wasn’t sure how much attention they’d given it. He paused now and waited for one of them to ask him what a shade was, but that part appeared to have gotten through.

“He said he wasn’t trying to harm Alex; he was trying to save him,” Sara said.

“Do you believe him?” Soren asked.

Sara looked flustered.

“No,” she said. “He was obviously trying to kidnap Alex.”

“Okay, sure,” Soren said. “But when he spoke those words, did you think he was telling the truth? Was he trying to take Alex because he wanted to protect him from something?”

Sara stared at him for a long moment.

“I don’t know,” she said.

“Of course he wasn’t telling the truth,” Ken said. “He shoved me out of the way like I was paper. He was going to forcibly grab Alex if Sara hadn’t gotten there.”

“That’s an interesting point actually,” Soren said. “If the shade can throw you around like that, why stop when Sara grabbed Alex? Surely if he could take down a trained police officer, he could take out Sara.”

“He threw you around too, as I remember it,” Ken said.

Soren threw his hands into the air in frustration.

“This isn’t a pissing contest!” he said.

“Soren!” Sara said, looking in Alex’s direction. The boy glanced at Soren, clearly puzzled.

“Yes, the shade can defeat me too,” Soren said. “So the point is, why does he stop when Sara shows up? You two need to focus.”

“You aren’t exactly making this easy, Soren,” Sara said, giving him another look he’d seen often when they were kids. She usually reserved it for when she was sick of him fooling around.

He put his hand through his hair. He was mad at Sara for letting Alex almost get taken, but was that it? He looked at Ken and Sara again. Clearly the two of them were dating, or at least had dated. Soren wasn’t sure exactly which.

“Undoubtedly true,” Soren said. “But we are collectively making it easy on the shade, and we need to stop. Alex isn’t alone at all from here on out, understand? No more distractions. I don’t know how many more chances we’re going to get.”

Soren noticed that Alex was raising his hand. For a moment, he was tempted to laugh, but he didn’t want to hurt the boy’s feelings.

“What’s on your mind, son?” Soren asked.

“I do,” Alex said.

Soren was confused.

“You do what?”

“I believe him,” Alex said. “The shade. I know you guys keep telling me he’s trying to hurt me, but when he talks to me… it doesn’t feel that way. He’s very…”

Alex seemed to be searching for a word.

“Comforting?” Sara offered, taking his hand into hers.

Alex nodded.

“You said these things could hypnotize people?” Ken asked. “Maybe this is part of that. He’s trying to hypnotize Sara and Alex into thinking he doesn’t want to hurt them.”

Soren shook his head. What Ken was saying was a possibility, but for some reason he doubted it. On two occasions, the shade had attacked men nearby, but he hadn’t gone after Sara either time he encountered her. It might mean he was telling the truth.

“Let’s say he is trying to save Alex,” Sara said. “What is he trying to save him from? He wasn’t in any danger before the shade showed up.”

“That we know of,” Soren said. “He told you that Alex was ‘next.’ We thought he was referring to something he was going to do, but what if he wasn’t? The one thing we know about shades is that they are powerful psychics. It’s possible this thing can see the future and knows Alex is in trouble.”

But if that were true, Soren thought Alex was in even more danger than he suspected. The shade might know something else was hunting Alex. The thought made Soren anxious. It could mean it was a normal human or another supernatural creature. He had no idea what they might be facing.

Soren began pacing the room, walking between his living room and dining room. He kept turning over the shade’s behavior in his mind. The shade had been angry about Alastair. He’d come right at Soren when he mentioned the boy’s name. A disturbing thought entered Soren’s head. What if the shade hadn’t kidnapped Alastair, but something else had? What if the monster had been trying to “save” Alastair too, but failed? It would explain the shade’s fury, at least. If he had succeeded in taking the other boy, it didn’t make sense that he would still be angry about it.

He ran his theory past Ken and Sara. While the cop looked skeptical, Sara began nodding.

“That’s it,” she said. “The key is figuring out what Alastair and Alex have in common. There must be something.”

Alex raised his hand again, and Soren pointed at him to speak.

“Both our names start with A?” he said.

Sara smiled and patted his hand.

“Let’s hope that’s not it,” Soren said. “Otherwise any friends named Adam, Aiden, and Alphonso are also in real trouble. But I like that you’re thinking about it. Keep doing that. Adults often miss what’s right under their noses.”

Soren began pacing again. They weren’t totally in the dark. They knew that the shade was at least involved with Alastair’s case. If the shade hadn’t taken him, someone else had. That meant the key to figuring out Alex’s case lay in examining Alastair’s.

“I need to have access to Alastair’s case file,” Soren said.

Ken nodded.

“I looked through them already, but I might have missed something,” he said. “I’m happy to move this to my place, where there’s a little more room — and weapons.”

Soren looked at Sara, who shook her head.

“I’d rather be out here,” she said.

Ken appeared hurt, but Sara kept talking.

“We’re in Leesburg, remember?” she asked. “We’re miles away from the playground or soccer field.”

“I don’t know how much that matters to a creature like this,” Soren said. “It used to be in Oregon, remember?”

“I’d rather not chance it,” Sara said.

“You’re welcome to stay here, Ken,” Soren said.

Sara looked at him in obvious surprise. Soren would have enjoyed watching Ken leave. He hated the way the cop looked at Sara. It reminded Soren of a puppy. But having the cop here could be useful. For starters, he needed someone with access to the police database.

Ken also seemed puzzled by the offer. He was probably assuming that Soren and Sara had been romantically linked in the past, and that Soren would use this as an opportunity to rekindle an old romance.

“It might help if you brought your laptop here, so we can help you with the search,” Soren said. “I want to broaden it to see if there are other cases where our friendly neighborhood shade might have shown up. If we can establish any kind of pattern, we might have a better idea of what’s happening.”

“I’ll drive home and get my laptop and some clothes,” he said.

Soren just nodded. Alex yawned noticeably.

“So we’re going to have another sleepover?” he asked.

“Looks that way,” Soren said.

“Yay,” the boy said and he jumped off the couch and ran over to the bathroom. Ken made a move to follow him, but Soren shook his head.

“There’s no window in there,” he said. “There’s no access point for anyone to grab him. But I’m glad he’s gone for a minute, because we need to talk about something.”

They waited for Alex to close the bathroom door. Soren lowered his voice.

“Let’s say our working theory is right,” Soren said. “Let’s say the shade really is trying to ‘save’ Alex. He might still be a threat.

“Sometimes supernatural creatures have funny ideas about helping mortals. And from what we can tell, this shade seems a little off his rocker. He’s obsessed with helping Alex and kids like him, but we have no idea what that means. He could spirit Alex away to a deserted island or make him invisible for the rest of his life.”

“He could do that?” Sara asked.

“Probably not literally, I’m just trying to give examples,” Soren said. “We don’t know what the shade wants to do. What I fear most is that the shade believes Alex is in for an unpleasant death, one in which he suffers. In that context, ‘saving’ him might mean…”

He let his drift voice off, but Sara finished the sentence anyway.

“That he’ll just make it quick,” Sara said. “So his goal might still be to kill him.”

 

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Chapter Nine

 

 

Soren sat in the dark, staring at a computer screen for the second evening in a row.

This time, however, he wasn’t alone. Sara and Alex were in bed, but Ken sat next to him. It was his computer, and unlike before, this was no random search. Ken had hooked into the police database. He seemed tired, but determined not to let Soren have access by himself.

Soren glanced at the clock and realized they had been at it for three hours, but were no closer to finding anything useful. In that time, he’d seen some truly horrifying cases. The apparently bottomless pool of human depravity never ceased to amaze him. Unfortunately, none of it seemed connected to Alastair or Alex’s case.

Ken, meanwhile, had been cross-referencing any mention of kidnappings near playgrounds or soccer fields, even just looking for victims in Alex’s age range. But so far, Alastair Horne seemed to be the only case with the same specifics as Alex’s, unless they counted the other alleged “sightings” of the white-haired man.

Soren discounted those for a relatively simple reason: nobody had disappeared. It was possible that the shade had somehow “saved” those kids, but he doubted it. The stories mostly lacked the kind of concrete specifics necessary for him to put much weight behind them.

Soren leaned back in his chair. The two of them had been uncomfortably hunched over what passed for Soren’s dining room table. He sighed in frustration.

“We need another approach,” he said.

“I’m open to suggestions,” Ken replied gruffly. He kept his eyes on the screen, but sipped a cup of coffee he’d made recently in Soren’s kitchen.

“Can we hash this out or are you going to be passive aggressive with me all night?” Soren asked.

Ken looked up and his brown eyes met Soren’s.

“I don’t like you,” he said.

“I’m devastated,” Soren replied.

“I’m just trying not to be passive aggressive,” Ken said with a hint of a smile.

“There was nothing between Sara and me,” Soren replied, answering a question that hadn’t been asked. “Her fiancé was my best friend. End of story. Happy?”

Ken stared at him for a full minute. Soren watched as he ran his tongue underneath his lip, apparently thinking about what Soren had said.

“Not really,” he said. “There’s definitely some kind of thing between you two. I see how you look at her. Worse than that, I’ve seen how she looks at you.”

Soren sat up abruptly.

“You’re imagining things,” he said, more sharply than he intended. “Sara doesn’t see me like that.”

“You sure about that?” Ken asked.

Soren rubbed his hand along his chin. He briefly considered what Ken was suggesting and then almost as quickly discarded the idea. Sara was his friend, that’s all. But he didn’t know if he was trying to convince himself of that or if it was really true.

When Ken had left to get his clothes, Sara had briefly tried to explain her relationship to the cop.

“We dated for about a year,” she started. “It broke off because…”

Soren had waved his hand at her.

“You don’t have to explain to me,” he said. “You’re entitled to date whoever you want.”

He’d tried to sound sincere when he said it, yet he had to admit he was disappointed. In his mind, she should have never been able to move on after John. He knew that attitude was deeply unfair, however.

“When’s the last time you dated anyone?” Sara had asked.

“How do you know I’m not dating someone right now?” he said.

Sara raised an eyebrow at him.

“I’ve seen this whole place,” she said. “Trust me, there is no hint of a feminine influence here.”

Soren shrugged.

“It’s been a while, I guess,” he said.

That was understating it dramatically. He’d had a couple of flings in the past seven years, but those had been few and far between. Women complained he was “cold,” “distant,” and “emotionally unavailable.”

And Soren knew he was all those things. He’d lost the connection to his former self and though sometimes he fought to regain it, it just didn’t seem to work. It was as if he could no longer be that man anymore. All he had left was his mission, his drive to avenge John and the two other friends he’d lost.

And maybe it was for the best. One day, his mission would get him killed. It seemed safer not to involve anyone else in that.

“We care about each other,” Soren told Ken, snapping his mind back to the present. “We go way back. And I feel responsible for what happened to John.”

Ken snorted and Soren knew what he was suggesting. Ken was implying Soren had killed John. A lot of people believed that. In fact, that was the opinion of most people who’d heard about the case, even his own mother. Soren felt a familiar rush of anger at Ken’s response, but let it pass. He didn’t need to get into that conversation. If Ken really believed Soren was guilty, he wouldn’t be working with him.

“My point is that she’s my friend,” Soren continued. “One of the few I have left in the world. I don’t want to fail her, or her son, the way I failed John. So stop trying to strut your feathers or whatever the hell peacocks do. When all this is over, I’ll go back to my cases, and she’ll go back to her happy life in Arlington. If that includes you, great. But it doesn’t include me.”

Soren hated having this conversation. He would have disliked it under the best of circumstances, but especially with this person.

Yet Soren also needed to get through to Ken. For the past few hours, the detective’s responses had been monosyllabic. Soren had the feeling that all his ideas were being completely ignored.

“Well, until two days ago, it didn’t include me anymore either,” Ken said. “It’s hard to live in a dead man’s shadow.”

Soren nodded.

“I get it, I do,” he said. “But I’m not the threat you think I am. And right now, for Sara’s sake, I really need you to listen to me.”

Ken started to object with a line about his police training.

“I’m not saying you aren’t more qualified to catch a criminal,” Soren said. “But I’m the guy who catches monsters.”

“Why is that, anyway?” Ken asked. “How did you get into this line of work?”

“Let’s not worry about that now,” Soren said. “I just want you to set aside whatever grudge you’ve got against me and try to work this through. You can go back to hating me the minute we’re finished. Okay?”

Ken nodded slowly. Soren wasn’t sure how sincere it was, but it would have to do. He was no good with this relationship stuff.

“How deep have you gone into the Horne case?” Soren asked. “I’ve only seen what was on the web.”

Ken tapped a few keystrokes on the laptop and the smiling face of Alastair Horne appeared. The kid looked cheerful and happy, his whole future in front of him. Ken turned the computer in Soren’s direction and leaned back in his chair, giving Soren control.

It was the first time Soren had been allowed to touch the laptop. Soren eagerly dove into the case file, looking for anything of interest. But the police had few clues to go on. As he suspected, the case file mentioned that Horne’s mother reported the white-haired man had “disappeared suddenly,” but the police had assumed that meant he fled. Otherwise, the officer on the case appeared to have done a thorough job. He had interviewed neighbors, friends, relatives, and anyone else with access to Alastair.

Soren knew that despite the fear of “stranger danger,” the most common kidnapper was someone a victim knew. Yet while the detective had come across some unsavory people, none of them fit the right profile. In short, there was no indication of who might have done this other than the shade.

Looking at the picture of the boy, Soren had a sudden inspiration. He changed the search parameters to look at all unsolved crimes in the town where Alastair was taken. What he received back was a list that was several pages long.

Soren opted to focus on unsolved murders and adjusted the search input accordingly. A much shorter list came up.

He noticed Ken lean forward with interest. Soren rapidly flipped through the first several that appeared on the list, but they were the wrong profile. One was of a 30-year-old woman shot in a robbery attempt, another was a hit-and-run. Soren pulled up a case of a home invasion of a man in his late fifties and scanned it. He was about to move on, but some instinct told him to give it a second look.

The victim’s name was Peter Strode, a local artist. Someone had broken in during the night and shot Strode while he lay in bed. Yet his house had not been robbed. More strangely, the police didn’t seem to have any suspects.

There were few other details, but something about it bothered Soren. Maybe it was the contrast to Alastair’s file, which was loaded with notes about interviews and potential leads. This one just seemed bare. It was as if the cops had gone through the motions, but hadn’t been interested in finding the killer.

The more Soren thought about it, the weirder it was. The town was a suburb of Portland. It didn’t see many unsolved homicides. And yet here was a home invasion, presumably a rare event, and it was as if the cops couldn’t be bothered. Soren would have assumed they’d be worried the killer would strike again, but that didn’t appear to be the case.

“Can you pull up a photo?” Soren asked Ken.

“What’s this have to do with Alastair?”

“Call it a hunch,” Soren said. “There’s something damn odd about this case.”

Ken took back the laptop and pulled up photos of the crime scene, but Soren couldn’t make out what the murder victim looked like. Finally, he found a different kind of picture. In it, Strode looked defiant, an older man staring down the photographer as if he wanted to break the camera by sheer force of will. His face looked battered. He had a black eye and a cut on his right cheek.

But the man also looked stunningly familiar. Part of it was his intense stare, but mostly it was his stark white hair. The man had hazel eyes, not silver, but there was no question: Peter Strode was the shade.

“Holy shit,” Ken said. “That’s him. That’s the guy.”

The type of photo was also important. Soren had seen them many times in the paper and on TV — he even had one of himself. This was Peter Strode’s mug shot.

Ken started clicking through to a related file. Even before the information came up, Soren thought he could guess the crime Strode had been arrested for. He was unsurprised to learn that Strode had been accused of kidnapping a 4-year-old boy. The child had survived. He was found in Strode’s home after an anonymous tip led police there. But the case had fallen apart amid accusations of police brutality and a forced confession.

It explained why the cops hadn’t been trying very hard to find Strode’s killer. He’d been unofficially labeled a sex offender. The police probably thought someone had broken in and given Strode what he deserved.

“So we have our answer,” Ken said. “If this is the shade, he’s not trying to ‘save’ Alex; Strode is a pervert.”

But Soren wasn’t so sure. It was clear that Strode had taken the boy, but it wasn’t obvious why. Terry had said shades were the spirits of people who were powerfully psychic and that they tended to repeat the actions in death that they undertook in life.

Soren wondered if it was possible he’d taken the boy because he’d been trying to save him from someone else.

Soren looked at the file again and almost hit himself in the head for his stupidity. The victim’s name was Bobby Strode.

“They were related,” Soren said. “That’s why the police thought Strode did it. He was the boy’s great uncle.”

“The perps are almost always related,” Ken said.

“Exactly,” Soren said. “It’s an open and shut case to the police.”

Soren examined the file. Strode had refused to talk to the police about why he’d taken his grand-nephew. The police had apparently roughed him up when they arrested him and he wouldn’t answer any of their questions.

Strode called a lawyer and the police were eventually forced to let him go home soon after his initial arrest. The cops had fucked up the case, but the killer struck quickly afterward. Strode was killed just three days later.

Soren stood up and began pacing around the room.

“You’re making me nervous,” Ken said. “Sit down.”

Soren ran his hands through his hair. It all came down to whether he believed what the shade had told Sara, that he wanted to “save” Alex. If Strode was a good guy, then there had to be a sensible reason he’d taken his grand-nephew. What if Strode knew something was out there, something that could hurt the boy?

It wasn’t as crazy as it sounded. If shades were former psychics, then it stood to reason that Peter Strode could have sensed there was a threat.

It would have had to be an imminent concern, something that didn’t give him time to warn the boy’s parents or call the police. Maybe he worried they wouldn’t believe him. So he acted quickly and kidnaps his own grand-nephew. When he tries to explain what happened to the police, they beat him up. Soren looked again at Strode’s mugshot. It was all there in his look of defiance. He did the crime, but he doesn’t feel ashamed of it. Because he was trying to help.

Soren knew it was a stretch, a loose theory concocted on the spur of the moment. But his gut told him he was on the right track.

“You want to share what you’re thinking?” Ken asked, watching Soren still pacing back and forth.

Soren took a breath and told him his idea. Ken’s eyes widened.

“That’s crazy,” he said.

“Yep,” Soren said. “But it might still be right.”

The most interesting part of the theory wasn’t that Strode was trying to save his relative, it was the anonymous tip that pinned him to the crime. Somebody had known Strode took the boy. He doubted it was the kid’s family; there wasn’t a good reason to be anonymous. In fact, Soren couldn’t think of any reason someone would want to be unnamed in a case of a missing kid. Unless…

Soren always saw cases as a kind of puzzle. The key was putting all the pieces in the right place. In one corner there was Alex, and Alastair was in another, while Peter Strode, aka the shade, was in a third. But there was a fourth party missing, the threat that Strode had been trying to save Alex and Alastair from.

If Strode was trying to save the boy from an imminent danger, maybe that person had seen Strode take him. Strode successfully saves the boy, but someone else — another person trying to harm or kidnap the kid — watched him do it. He called in the tip to the police.

Suddenly the fourth part of the puzzle was beginning to take shape. There was another player in the game, one who was lurking in the shadows. Soren was willing to bet he was the anonymous tipper. But he was also something else.

“I know who killed Strode,” Soren said.

“Wait, what?” Ken asked.

“Think about it,” Soren said. “If Strode didn’t take Alastair, somebody else did. Meanwhile, there’s someone feeding information to the police and an unknown murderer. What do you want to bet they are all the same person?”

Ken started shaking his head and offering arguments why Soren was wrong. They were all sensible and logical, but Soren ignored them. He was right; he felt it in his bones.

In his mind’s eye, he could see a shadowy figure walking through a house and standing at the edge of Strode’s bed. When the man opened his eyes and started to shout, the figure pulled the trigger.

“There are two kidnappers,” Soren said. “Peter Strode, who is now our mysterious shade, and somebody else, someone waiting in the wings.”

“Did you hear anything I just said?” Ken asked.

“Not really,” Soren said. “The man who killed Peter Strode is the same person who kidnapped Alastair Horne. And if that’s true, he’s still at large — and almost certainly in Virginia. Otherwise, why would Strode care? He’s not trying to save every potential child victim of a kidnapper, just certain ones. Our guy is out there, only now he’s after Alex.”

 

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Chapter Ten

 

 

Sara opened her eyes to find the room on fire. Flames crawled up the walls of Soren’s bedroom, consuming everything in their path. She sat up in bed, shaking Alex, who woke up immediately.

“What’s going on?” he asked.

He looked around him, and Sara saw the panicked expression on his face.

“We need to get out of here,” she said.

But there was nowhere to go. The door was covered in flames, which had now spread across the ceiling above her. She feared that any minute it would collapse.

“Soren!” she screamed. “Ken!”

She could hear muffled shouts behind the door, but she couldn’t make out anything they were saying.

“Over here,” a voice said.

She turned to see a figure at the window. It was the one spot in the room other than the bed that wasn’t on fire. She couldn’t see the figure very well, but she could hear him through the glass.

“Open the window!” he shouted. “It’s locked from the inside.”

Sara looked to see the flames nearing the bed and she scrambled to get to the window before it caught fire. The heat was excruciating. She felt like she was being boiled alive. She didn’t know how the fire had started, but it was going to kill Alex and her if she couldn’t escape.

She reached the window, pulling Alex along behind her. She unlocked it and pushed down the safety latches as the fire burned around them.

“Hurry!” the man at the window said. “You don’t have much time!”

She tried to open the window, but the pane was stuck and wouldn’t budge.

“Help me!” she shouted back.

“You have to do it,” the man said.

Sara braced herself against the window, bending her knees and pushing the window up with all of her might. But she wasn’t strong enough. The window didn’t move as the flames closed in.

Alex stepped beside her, imitating her movement and pushing up against the window. It burst open all at once, apparently free of whatever obstacle had been keeping it in place.

“Quickly,” the man said. “Hand Alex to me.”

She started to do as the voice commanded, but then suddenly held back. She looked around the room, which was still alive with flames. It seemed to shimmer for a second and she had a glimpse of it as it was when she’d first walked through the door with Alex. There were photos on the wall, including one of Soren, John and her in their younger days. They weren’t on fire. There was nothing wrong with the room at all.

“Sara!” the voice said. “Hand Alex to me! Hurry! He’ll die if you don’t.”

The flames reappeared and she felt the heat coming off of them. She had trouble thinking straight. But something about this felt wrong to her.

Don’t leave this room, she thought. You’re safe here.

“Sara, look at me,” the voice outside said.

The figure leaned down and stuck his head through the window. She called out in surprise when she saw who it was. She’d assumed it was Soren or Ken, or perhaps even a firefighter there to help them.

But it was instead the last person she’d expected — the figure in front of her was John Townes.

“You have to trust me, Sara,” John said. “I can save you and Alex. Just give him to me.”

She felt a surge of joy so powerful it blotted out everything else. John was here to help. Of course she would trust him. He was her fiancé.

“Okay,” she said.

She turned to Alex.

“Take my hand and don’t let go,” she said. “Even when you go through that window, hold on to me.”

Alex nodded solemnly. When she turned back to John, he was frowning. When he noticed her eyes on him, he smiled as if nothing was wrong.

“Hurry,” he said again.

Sara looked one last time at the room. The flames had devoured the bed, leaving an inferno in the center of the room. She needed to leave before they were both burnt alive.

Sara scooped up Alex and passed him through the window, making sure to keep his left hand clasped tightly.

As soon as he was through the window, it shut on their hands. Sara yelped in pain but didn’t let go. With her left arm, she yanked the window open again and crawled through.

She found herself standing on a fire escape with Alex and John. She had a sudden sense of relief but noticed something odd. There was no smoke pouring out of the window behind her. Standing outside, she no longer felt the heat from the fire. She waited to hear fire trucks in the distance or the sounds of others in Soren’s apartment building, but there was nothing.

It didn’t matter. Her family — her true family — was in front of her. It was John, Alex and her, the only time they’d all been together. John had died before Alex was born.

The thought caught her up short. John had died? That wasn’t right. He was standing in front of her.

Perhaps seeing her confusion, John hugged her tight, and Sara’s doubts melted away.

“I’ve missed you so much,” she said.

“I know,” John said. “But I’m here now.”

When they pulled away from each other, she put her hand to John’s face. He had the same tousled blond hair and gorgeous blue eyes that she remembered.

“Where have you been?” she asked.

“I’ll tell you soon,” he said. “But we need to get going. The shade Soren warned you about is nearby. We need to get Alex to safety.”

Sara turned back in alarm.

“Soren,” she said. “Is he okay? What about Ken?”

“They’re fine, Sara,” John said. “Look at me.”

She looked into John’s eyes and felt like she could be lost there. She never wanted to stop looking. She felt Alex tug on her arm. She was still holding tightly to his hand.

Reluctantly, Sara looked down. Alex was eying her strangely.

“Mommy? I don’t think that’s who you think it is,” he said.

She turned to look back at John, who smiled broadly. He casually put a hand on Alex’s head and ruffled his hair.

“That’s my boy,” he said. “Always making jokes. Come on, Sara. We’ve got to go. The shade is coming. Do you want him to take Alex away?”

Before Sara could answer, John broke away and started heading down the fire escape.

“John, wait!” she said.

“No time, Sara,” he responded. “We’ve got to go. Hurry!”

She looked behind her to see that the entire building had now caught fire. She could abruptly feel the heat again. Without thinking, she leaned down.

“Get on my back,” she told Alex. “I’ll carry you down.”

He climbed on to her back, reminding her of the days when she used to give him piggy-back rides.

“Hold on tight,” she said and began climbing down the fire escape.

When she reached the bottom, she saw John already running away from the burning building, fleeing into the woods behind Soren’s apartment.

“Mommy, no,” Alex whispered in her ear. “He’s not daddy. He’s a bad man.”

But Sara didn’t hear him. John was leaving her again and she would be damned if she’d let him go.

She set Alex down and pulled him along behind her as they ran into the woods.

 

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Chapter Eleven

 

 

Ken sat back in his chair and looked at Soren.

“You really believe that there’s someone else involved?” he asked.

Soren nodded his head.

“Strode might be acting alone, but I don’t think so,” Soren said. “Can you at least entertain the notion for a minute? If I’m right, we need to get a bead on the guy quickly before he makes a move against Alex.”

Ken looked like he wanted to keep arguing, but he stopped himself.

“Okay,” he said finally.

“Good,” Soren said, and pointed to the laptop. “Pull up anyone who recently moved into the area from Oregon. There can’t be that many.”

Ken arched an eyebrow at him.

“Doesn’t exactly work like that,” he said. “I don’t work for the NSA. Best we’ve got are DMV records.”

But Ken sat up and leaned over the computer, beginning to pull up some information.

Soren wanted to get up and pace again, but stayed seated. His theory made sense, but it was incomplete. If Strode had been killed by someone who was kidnapping kids, why didn’t the shade go directly after him? He was a psychic, after all.

Then again, Strode may have just had precognitive abilities. He might have been able to see visions of a man grabbing those kids without knowing who he was. How he was able to find Alastair and Alex to try and save them was unclear, but there was a lot Soren didn’t understand about psychic phenomena. He knew even less about shades.

He did know that psychics often had the same weakness, the inability to see their own future. That would explain why Strode didn’t know he was going to get shot in bed. Soren remembered a woman he’d heard of a few years back that appeared to have some genuine psychic talent. She’d called herself “Madame Zora,” and knew a ton about what was happening in Loudoun County. Ultimately, however, she didn’t know enough to foretell that someone would walk into her shop one day and slit her throat.

“Here’s a crazy idea,” Ken said, still hunched over the computer. “If you’re right about Strode being a victim, is there any way of reaching out to him? It’s possible he knows something that could help us identify the real perp.”

Soren noticed that the more Ken talked, the more he seemed to be coming around to his theory. Soren shook his head.

“You can summon shades,” he said, “but it’s incredibly dangerous. He’s liable to see it as an assault and react accordingly.”

“He’d kill us.”

“That’s the most likely outcome, yeah.”

Ken looked thoughtful for a moment and then started typing on the laptop again. Soren leaned over to see that he was looking at traffic violations. He appeared to be searching for anyone pulled over in Virginia who had an Oregon driver’s license. For the first time, Soren was happy Ken was helping him. Without access to the police files, Soren would never have been able to identify the shade. He’d still be stuck.

Soren shivered involuntarily. He knew the heat was on in his apartment, but for some reason he felt cold.

“Bingo,” Ken said.

Soren looked at the screen.

“We’re in luck,” Ken said. “There aren’t that many matches. Only three.”

But when Ken pulled them up, Soren was disappointed. One was for a woman pulled over in Virginia Beach, roughly 200 miles from Arlington. Another was for a teenager speeding south of Petersburg on I-95, likely on his way to Florida with his college buddies. Only the third was close by, but disappointingly, it was also for a woman.

Of course, Soren was just assuming that the person kidnapping children was a man. He supposed he shouldn’t be so sure of that, but he knew the odds favored it being a man.

“Well, she lives in the right place,” Ken said.

“She married?” Soren asked.

Ken shrugged.

“Again, this isn’t a police state,” he said. “She got pulled over for running a stop sign. We didn’t grill her on her family history.”

“Try searching her name on social media,” Soren said.

Ken looked her up on Facebook. While there were several people with the same name, none matched the photo from her license or were in the right location.

Soren looked again at where she was pulled over. He reached past Ken and pulled up a local map on the Internet, finding the address of where the incident had occurred.

There was a school nearby. Soren looked at the time of the ticket, noticing it was 8:56 a.m. The woman had almost certainly gotten the ticket while trying to rush her kid to school on time.

If she had a kid, that probably meant she had a husband. Even if she didn’t, Soren wanted to talk to the woman and anyone else she lived with. He pulled up her home address in the DMV record and pointed at it.

“Can we go here now?” Soren said. “Maybe it’s a dead end, but it’s a solid lead. We could question the woman.”

“First of all, we won’t do any questioning,” Ken said. “We’re not in a buddy cop movie. You’ll be lucky if I bring you along. And more importantly, we need probable cause to start banging on people’s doors in the middle of the night — and we don’t have it. All we know for sure is that this woman used to live in Oregon. That’s not exactly a crime — or enough for a warrant.”

“I’m beginning to wish we did live in a police state,” Soren said.

“Sometimes we feel the same way,” Ken replied.

Soren stood up.

“I’ve got another idea,” he said. “That’s Glebe Elementary. I’m pretty sure that’s where Alex goes. Let’s wake up Sara and see if she’s ever heard of this woman or her kids. That might give you something more concrete to go on.”

“Let her sleep,” Ken said.

“Trust me, she’d want to be awake for this,” Soren said. “She only went to bed to stay with Alex.”

“If you say so,” Ken said.

Soren walked through his kitchen and to his bedroom door. He opened it slowly, trying to be careful not to wake up Alex.

As he did so, he felt a draft of cold air. The window along the far wall was standing wide open. Soren looked to the bed, worried he would find Alex missing. But it was even worse than that.

He ran back to the dining room.

“Call the cavalry,” Soren said. “Alex and Sara are gone.”

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Chapter Twelve

 

 

The shade chased Alex and Sara through the woods. When she looked behind her, she could see his pale hand reaching out to grab Alex.

She struggled to pull her son away in time, still running with his hand grasped in hers. The two of them were exhausted after sprinting for what felt like miles.

John was gone. He’d disappeared into the woods ahead. Soon after, the shade had returned. If Sara tried to run in any direction but forward, the creature was there with his arms outstretched, trying to take Alex away forever. If she slowed, he would appear behind her, just at her heels. When she started running again, he disappeared.

The shade was hounding her, driving her through the woods in a panic. They had no choice but to keep fleeing.

“Mom, no,” Alex whimpered. “We’ve got to stop.”

But she couldn’t. If she stopped, Alex would be taken. She’d had dreams like this long ago, when he was just a baby. In them, a shadowy force was always pursuing her, attempting to wrest her child from her arms. She’d woken dripping in sweat, anxiously going to Alex’s room to make sure he was okay.

Think this through, Sara, a voice in her mind said. This isn’t what it seems to be.

She slowed and the shade once again appeared out of the forest, reaching for Alex. This time, however, Alex tried to pull away from her, toward the creature.

“Alex, no!” she shouted.

She yanked him back just in time, as the shade’s hands grabbed the air where Alex had been standing. When she tried to run, however, her son dug in his heels. He was actively fighting against her.

“No, mom!” he yelled.

The shade took another step forward, and she could see his mouth turn into a wide grin. He looked far more savage than he had when she’d seen him before. His eyes were no longer silver, but dark pools of inky black. She could see rows of sharp teeth in his mouth that were stained with blood. He had already been terrifying, but now he was something out of a nightmare.

You’re almost there, Sara, the voice said. Think it through. Listen to Alex.

Sara moved to grab Alex and pick him up. But when her arms closed around him, he pushed her away.

“No!” he yelled.

The shade was on top of them, but the creature hesitated. He hovered around Alex, looking as if he were about to grab him, but he stayed just out of reach.

“He’s not real, mom,” Alex said. “He can’t hurt us.”

Every instinct in her body told her Alex was wrong. Looking at the shade’s hands, she saw his fingers had transformed into sharp claws. They hovered inches away from Alex’s face and yet the boy didn’t looked scared.

“This isn’t the shade,” Alex said. “He can’t touch me.”

The shade snarled at Alex, showing its teeth again. Its black eyes looked up at Sara. It barely resembled what she’d seen at the playground. Now it just looked like a…

That’s it, Sara, the voice said.

Before she could complete her thought, the shade — or the monster it had become — vanished. She looked around them, but it was nowhere to be seen. She crouched defensively, waiting for it to reappear. Instead, she heard a familiar voice calling to her.

“Sara!” John said.

He walked out of the forest in front of them.

“Come on!” he yelled. “I’ve found a safe place just ahead.”

Sara immediately began walking toward him. Or she would have, except for Alex, who again wouldn’t budge.

“No!” he yelled. “He’s not daddy!”

John turned to look at Alex.

“Shut up, you little shit,” he said. “I’m talking to your mother.”

The words jarred Sara. She stopped trying to walk towards John and looked at him in shock.

“What did you say?” she asked.

“Come on, Sara,” John said, his tone returning to normal. “We can be together as a family. All of us. Just like you always wanted.”

But the spell had been broken. Instead of moving towards John, she pulled Alex toward her.

“Who are you?” she asked.

“I’m your fiancé,” he replied. “I’m the guy you got killed. It’s your fault, Sara. You know that, right? You’re the reason I died.”

Sara closed her eyes. This was another dream she’d had before, the one in which John returned to recriminate her. The realization hit her strongly. This was a dream; of course it was.

The man chasing her from the shadows, John returning to haunt her, even the room in flames — they were all nightmares she’d had in the past. This wasn’t real.

She opened her eyes to find John standing in front of her.

“I shouldn’t have lost my temper, should I?” he said, still smiling. “It’s a flaw, I have to admit. It’s just that your son is a real pain in the ass. Any other kid would have bought the show hook, line and sinker. He should be the one telling you to hurry. But I don’t think Alex believed any of it. Did you, you little shithead?”

“Fuck you,” Sara said, and she heard Alex gasp quietly beside her. “Get away from my son.”

John looked at her with disgust in his eyes.

“This was the easy way,” he said. “Now it’s going to be harder, and a lot more painful.”

John suddenly lashed out at her, punching her in the face. It sent her reeling back.

“You can’t hurt me,” she said. “It’s just a dream.”

But it did hurt. She lifted her hand to her face and felt blood on it. John was smiling at her.

“It’s just a dream,” he said in a high-pitched mocking tone. “You’re an idiot.”

He changed form in front of her, becoming the half shade-half nightmare creature he’d been before. She saw its rows of teeth as it opened its mouth.

“I’m going to tear you apart,” it said in a dark, terrible voice. It took a step toward her.

“You have to wake up, mom,” Alex said. “It’s the only way.”

“How?” Sara asked.

She forced herself to look away from the monster and stare at her son. He looked at her sadly, and for a moment seemed far older than his years.

“You have to let me go,” he said.

Before she could stop him, Alex wrenched himself free of the grip she still had on his left hand.

The world around her collapsed, almost seeming to deflate like a balloon. The monster vanished and everything around her changed. The last thing she saw were Alex’s sad eyes still looking at her.

And then Sara woke up.

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Chapter Thirteen

 

 

Sara found herself standing near a playground, with Alex just a few feet away.

She was disoriented and confused, sure that she was still trapped in her strange lucid dream. It took a moment for her to realize this was no longer a nightmare. Or if it was, it was the kind that happened when you were wide awake.

She looked down at her thin cotton pajamas, the same ones she had put on before she climbed into bed with Alex. The ground felt damp beneath her bare feet and the cold air made her shiver. She looked beside her to find Alex staring sightlessly straight ahead.

“Alex,” she said, but he didn’t respond.

She gripped both his arms and turned him toward her, but he didn’t engage. He was alive and breathing, but his consciousness seemed very far away.

Sara glanced around her. The playground was unfamiliar. It looked like it hadn’t been used in years. There was a battered slide in one corner and several swings with rusty chains. The see-saw was broken, with one half lying on the ground and the other missing entirely.

In the dim moonlight, she could see a slight mist hanging over the equipment, adding to the terrifying atmosphere.

She reached into a pocket on her pajamas hoping to find a cell phone, but there was nothing there. She had no keys, no wallet and no sense of where she was. Nothing about this place seemed familiar.

The playground was ringed by trees. If there had once been a path into this park, it was long since overgrown. She needed to leave, but there was no obvious path out.

She shook Alex again.

“Alex, honey,” she said. “I need you to wake up.”

But he was completely unresponsive. It was as if he was…sleepwalking.

She realized that was what had happened to her. She remembered the dream of Soren’s room on fire and how she and Alex had escaped the building. The fire hadn’t been real, but opening the window and running into the woods had been.

She thought of the story of Alastair Horne, how he had vanished in the middle of the night with only the window open. They assumed that someone had broken into the house, but what if instead Horne had just left on his own? What if he’d been compelled to open the window, perhaps while trapped in a dream?

But Alex was still trapped in the dream. She tried slapping him gently, and then a little harder, to see if it would wake him up, but there was no response. Alex just stared straight ahead.

She thought of the monster that had been standing there with them and how it had hurt her. She hoped it couldn’t do the same to Alex.

Sara didn’t know how long they’d been walking, but they might still be near Soren’s apartment. It would explain why she didn’t recognize the place. It was somewhere in Loudoun County, an area she hardly knew.

“Soren!” she yelled. “Soren! Ken!”

Only the wind answered her. She heard a squeak nearby and turned to see one of the swings swaying in the breeze.

“Help me!” she screamed. “Please, someone! Help me!”

Her hands were shaking. She wanted to grab Alex and run, but without knowing where she was running to, it could just make the situation worse. Soren lived in Leesburg, but there was a lot of open land around the town. If she chose the wrong direction, they might end up even further from civilization.

“Help me!” she shouted again.

She heard a branch break nearby and turned in that direction. In the mist and gloom, she saw nothing.

“Is someone there?” she asked.

There was a metallic clang and Sara jumped. She spun around to see two of the swings had hit each other, apparently slammed together by the wind.

The shade had led her here. That must have been what happened. Yet even as she had that thought, she began to doubt it. Alastair Horne had disappeared from his bedroom; and now both she and Alex had done the same. What if the shade hadn’t taken Alastair?

What if it was someone — or something — else?

Whatever that was could have been responsible for bringing Alex and her here. She was suddenly sure it was the same thing pretending to be John in her dream.

That wasn’t just some figment of her imagination. It had been playing her. When it looked at Alex in the dream, there had been real anger in its eyes. Alex seemed to see through the illusion.

She heard another branch break in the woods near the playground. Sara drew Alex close to her.

“Whoever’s there, I want you to just come out,” she said.

She thought there would be no response, but instead she heard the unmistakable sound of a man chuckling. The noise made the hairs on the back of her neck stand up. The wind carried the sound so that it seemed to come from all around her, as if there was a crowd of men just out of sight, laughing at her.

She needed to get out of there, and fast.

“Face me, you coward!” she screamed.

“But it’s so much better this way,” a voice answered. “Your fear is intoxicating. I never intended to bring you here. I thought I would leave you sleeping while standing in front of the window. But you insisted on coming with your boy. Now I’m happy you did. This is going to be so much fun.”

The voice sounded familiar, but she couldn’t place it.

“Who are you?”

There was another chuckle.

“The man who’s going to kill you and sell your son,” the voice answered.

She gripped Alex even tighter. She considered running in the other direction from the voice. Arguably her best chance was to blindly flee. But without knowing where she was and carrying an effectively unconscious child, there was no way she could outrun whoever was out there.

That left only one option — to stand and fight. Since she had no idea where she was, she didn’t think Soren or Ken would be able to track her down, so she couldn’t hope for rescue. She’d just have to defeat him on her own.

She was scared and vulnerable, but not defenseless. Sara had taken several self-defense courses over the past few years. She also took kickboxing as exercise, a choice for which she was now immensely grateful.

“Sell him?” she asked, playing for time.

She wanted to keep him talking and see if she could get a bead on his position, maybe develop some kind of strategy.

But when he responded, the voice seemed to shift position, moving elsewhere in the woods around her.

“What’d you think, I was Chester the Molester?” the voice asked. “No, no, I don’t swing that way. I only hunt special boys.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Sara said.

“Of course you don’t,” the voice responded. “You live in a nice little suburban world, where the only things to worry your pretty little head about are the occasional homeless vagrants from D.C. Everything you read in the papers is true, the police are only a phone call away. A gun and a little self-defense training are all you need to protect you.

“But that world’s an illusion. It’s a pretty lie told so that you’ll accept your lot in life. The real world is a lot more dangerous, filled with creatures you can’t even conceive of. Some of them you know, you just think they’re stories. Others have never even been whispered about, and they like it that way. But they’re out there, watching you.”

“What does this have to do with Alex?”

There was another clang and she turned briefly to see the swings bang into each other again. She heard a furtive movement from the trees while she was distracted.

“Oh, you have quite a boy on your hands,” the voice said. “Quite an unusual child.”

She didn’t know what he was talking about. Every mother thought her child was unique, and this was true for her and Alex, yet she didn’t think of him as “unusual.” He seemed normal and well-adjusted.

“How so?”

“He hasn’t told you, has he?” the voice responded. “I thought not. Boys like that seldom do. Alastair didn’t.”

“What do you know about Alex?”

The voice giggled. It sounded unstable and dangerous.

“The way he defied me in that dream, he may be more powerful than all the other boys I’ve taken,” the voice said. “I’m going to charge triple for him.”

“I don’t understand.”

“And you never will. I’m going to take Alex, like I took Alastair. I won’t harm a hair on your son’s head, but the creature I sell him to will. I’m sorry to tell you that Alex will suffer. It’s part of the process.”

“What process?”

“Harvesting his power,” the voice said. “I don’t know much about it really. It’s better that way. I know they have to take his blood. They’ll drain him like a bathroom tub.”

“Vampires?”

“Oh please,” the voice said. “I wouldn’t be working for any creature that trite.”

“Why don’t you come out of that forest?” Sara said. “If you’re going to kill me, at least face me like a man.”

There was another soft, low chuckle.

“But I’m not a man,” the voice said. “Oh, I pretend to be one. I walk among you. I even got married a few years back, because I knew it would make my job so much easier. In the old days, you used to be able to lurk at soccer games or near playgrounds. But now everybody’s a busybody. They gather around you and ask you questions.

“So I changed strategies. I got married, adopted a kid — I told the wife through tears that I was sterile — and now I can hang around on playgrounds all I want. Nobody questions why I’m there. And I can find the special boys I need to. They’re few and far between, but that’s okay. I don’t need many, just one every few years so I can keep it going.”

“I know you, don’t I?” Sara asked.

He continued on as if she hadn’t asked the question.

“I’m what used to be called a dreamweaver. Then that insipid pop song came along and ruined everything,” the voice continued. “Now you can’t call yourself that without somebody singing along. We just call ourselves dreamers now, which is really a misnomer because we don’t dream, you do.”

“The dream of the fire,” Sara said. “You conjured it.”

“Well, I had to bring you here, didn’t I?” the voice answered. “And a good thing, too. Without you, the boy probably wouldn’t have come at all. I never expected that. He’s still trapped in that dream, but I can’t scare him. All I managed to do was tie him up.”

“I do know you,” she said. “I recognize your voice.”

There was a soft rustling of leaves from the forest and then a figure stepped forward. She couldn’t make out who it was at first — his face was barely human — but then she realized who it was.

Standing before her was Richard Frye.

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Chapter Fourteen

 

 

Soren and Ken raced through the streets with the siren on top of the car blaring into the night.

Soren had only been in a police car the couple times he’d been arrested, so riding in the passenger side while the vehicle rocketed down the road was a new experience for him.

Unfortunately, he didn’t have time to savor it. He flipped on a car light so he could better see a book about mythological creatures. That and a small bag of a few items, what he thought of as Plan B, were all he’d brought with him.

The book would help him know what they were dealing with before they confronted it. If they went in totally unprepared, the creature would have the upper hand.

Soren heard Ken barking information into the police radio, but he tried to focus on the book.

Ken and he had already surveyed outside around the apartment, but they had quickly surmised it was pointless to try to follow the trail. Soren found two sets of footprints in the garden bed by his bedroom window, but the trail ran cold as soon as they hit a sidewalk ten yards later. Alex and Sara seemed to have vanished completely after that.

The only positive sign was that Sara and Alex appeared to have been walking alone, at least initially. There were no other footprints with them. What worried Soren was the idea that they might have been picked up later. They could be anywhere by now.

Ken and he had jumped in the car after that. The detective had radioed Loudoun County police to help organize a search while they headed away from Soren’s apartment. The smart move would have been to start the search from there. Instead, they were following the single thin lead they had, the name and address of the Oregon woman pulled over for speeding near Glebe Elementary School. It was miles away from where Sara and Alex had disappeared, but both Ken and he had seized on it.

Soren knew that was a sign of their desperation, not confidence in the lead. Ken had offered to send an Arlington cop to the house instead, but Soren worried that whoever was sent would miss something. It was clear they weren’t dealing with an ordinary human kidnapper. If Soren’s hunch was right, the thing behind all this wasn’t human and could be even more dangerous than the shade.

Which meant that sending a regular old Arlington cop wasn’t going to help them. He could miss a vital clue or worse, face a monster he couldn’t possibly understand. Soren needed to go himself, and Ken refused to let him go alone. Of course if Soren was wrong and the lead went nowhere, it would mean they’d wasted valuable time.

Soren just wished he knew what monster had taken Sara and Alex. He called Terry as soon as they got in the car, but couldn’t reach the older man. That shouldn’t have been a surprise. It was two o’clock in the morning, well after office hours, and Soren didn’t have Terry’s home number. He would have to figure this out on his own.

He looked through the book Terry had given him, scanning entries quickly before moving on. He had been so focused on the shade, he hadn’t thought about other factors he should have been researching. He’d assumed that whoever took Alastair had broken into his room from the outside, even though there was no sign of forced entry. The other possibility — that Alastair had willingly opened the window and climbed out — hadn’t occurred to him.

But that was the only way Sara and Alex could have left. He’d locked the window before they went to bed, even flipping two small notches on the side of the pane that prevented the window from being opened more than a couple of inches. They were designed to stop small children from climbing out the window, but they would also thwart anyone from smashing the window and reaching in to open it from the outside.

They were too high up for Alex to reach, but Sara had apparently purposefully pressed the notches until they were flush with the pane and then unlocked the window. There was little doubt that the two of them climbed out together.

He did not believe she would have done so willingly, nor that an intruder at the window could have made a convincing case for Sara to unlock it.

That left one option: someone, or something, had hypnotized her and Alex into leaving. For some reason, he didn’t believe the shade was behind it.

As he frantically looked through his book, time was slipping away. He clenched one fist so hard he felt his fingernails breaking the skin. He had focused all his attention on the shade and not enough on what else might prey on a little boy.

He’d been sloppy and stupid, too caught up in squabbling with Ken and getting to the bottom of Peter Strode’s life and death. For a moment, he felt his stomach seize up as he felt the full magnitude of what was at risk.

He’d failed John Townes. And now he was about to fail Sara and Alex Townes as well. Everything he’d fought for over the past seven years would mean nothing. It was like staring into a black hole that threatened to swallow him.

He willed himself to think differently. He would not fail Sara. People hired him because he was the guy who could get the job done, no matter what he faced. This case might be personal, but it was no different.

He still had time to rectify his mistake. He just couldn’t afford to make any more.

He flipped through the names of monsters in the book, including shrills, gaunts, shirken and pretenders. But he knew those weren’t what he was looking for. He stopped at an entry for a trowe, a small, hairy beast that looked vaguely ape-like. There was a mention of possible hypnotic powers. But Soren dismissed it almost immediately. Whoever was behind this was able to pretend it was human and there was no mention that trowes could do so.

He found a promising entry entitled “Dreamwalkers,” creatures that could enter a person’s dreams. Once there, they could wreak havoc in a person’s consciousness, inducing cardiac arrest or other real physical problems. Soren studied the section on dreamwalkers for a while but eventually ruled them out too. They could hurt people, but they didn’t appear able to compel them to do anything. He needed something that could have forced Alastair and Sara to open their windows.

Still, the idea of a creature able to enter dreams was promising. He flipped to the next page and spotted the name “Dreamweaver.”

The description provided only basic information: these creatures were capable of projecting a dream onto a human being, effectively giving them control over the person’s actions in the waking world. If the dreamweaver wanted someone to get into a car and drive, for example, they simply conjured a dream in which it happened. They could even force someone to sleep against his or her will.

According to the book, dreamweavers had only a few limitations on their ability. They could not appear human while employing their powers and if a victim woke himself up from a dreamweaver-induced nightmare, the creature could not force him back to sleep. They could compel a target to sleep while miles away, but only if they had physical contact with their intended victim first. Otherwise, for a new target, they had to be close. Finally, their ability to make more than one target dream simultaneously was limited.

Below the description were two photos. One showed a normal human male, while the one next to it showed some kind of creature. The eyes were abnormally far apart and the nose was practically nonexistent. There were two long gashes along each side of his face. Soren realized the two photos were of the same person. The creature’s face was a distorted echo of the man’s. The message was clear — this thing could look human when it wanted to.

Soren knew there might be other possibilities for what had taken Sara and Alex, but this creature was an excellent candidate. It would explain why Sara and Alex willingly left his apartment. The dreamweaver led them to a place of his own choosing.

The car screamed into a small neighborhood just off Route 66 and pulled up to a red brick house. Ken was out of the car as soon as he parked. He sprinted to the front door and began pounding on it loudly.

Soren followed him, placing the book down on the seat. Maybe they would be lucky and Sara and Alex would be here.

It took a few moments before Soren saw movement behind a curtain by the door. Ken flashed his badge at it. He’d turned off the siren when they entered the neighborhood, but the car was still washing the house with pulses of red and blue light. It was obvious who he worked for, but he shouted it anyway.

“This is the Arlington County police department,” Ken said.

The door opened on a slight, obviously scared woman, who stared at Ken.

“Are you Muriel Frye?” Ken asked.

The woman nodded.

“Is Richard okay?” she asked. “Has something happened to him?”

Ken and Soren shared a look.

“Richard?” Ken asked. “Is he your husband?”

But Muriel didn’t answer right away.

“You were at the soccer game,” she told Ken. “I saw you. That man attacked you.”

The pieces of the puzzle finally settled into place. Sara had mentioned a friend named Richard who she’d seen at the game. It couldn’t be a coincidence. Apparently Ken came to same conclusion.

“Is Richard here?” Ken asked.

“What’s going on?” Muriel demanded.

“Where is your husband?” Ken asked. “We need to speak to him right away.”

“He’s on a business trip,” she said. “It just came up this afternoon. He’s not supposed to be back for another two days.”

Soren felt his heart sink. He could see Ken grinding his teeth, sharing his frustration.

“Do you have any way to reach him?” he asked.

Muriel nodded and disappeared inside the house for a moment. She returned with a cell phone pressed against her ear. After a moment, she shook her head.

“His phone’s not on,” she said. “It’s late.”

“We need to know where he’s staying,” Ken said. “Quickly.”

“Is he in trouble?”

But Ken didn’t answer her.

“Do you know where he’s staying?”

She nodded and rattled off the name of a hotel in Baltimore. Ken checked his phone and called it immediately, handing his phone to Muriel.

“Get him on the line now,” he said.

Soren thought she might argue. Certainly he didn’t think Ken had any legal power to compel the woman. But she didn’t resist. Soren wasn’t entirely surprised. He knew from his own experience how much people tended to defer to cops.

Soren nervously tapped his foot on the porch. He could feel time slipping away. Frye was their man; he was sure of it.

Finally, Muriel looked at Ken apologetically.

“They say he checked in, but he’s not picking up,” she said.

“Send someone to check the room; tell them it’s an emergency,” Ken responded.

“He’s not there, Ken,” Soren said.

“We need to be sure,” Ken responded. “Once we do, I can get a warrant for his arrest.”

“Arrest?” Muriel said. “What on earth are you talking about?”

Ken and Soren ignored her.

“Fine, but we can’t wait around for that,” Soren said. “If he’s not here, it’s a good bet he has her and Alex already.”

“Has who?” Muriel said, her voice beginning to sound shrill.

“What’s he going to do to them?” Ken asked.

“I don’t know, but I can’t imagine it’s anything good,” Soren said.

He slammed his fist into the porch railing, punching it because he didn’t know what else to do. He rounded on Muriel.

“You know, don’t you?” he said.

“Know what?” she asked.

But he could see the fear in her eyes. She knew. Of course she did.

“Your husband’s not human,” Soren spat. “And you’re protecting him. Where is he, Muriel? Where is he?”

He took a step forward and the threat must have been obvious on his face. Muriel didn’t so much retreat as wilt. She cringed, a look of terror in her eyes. She’d been hit before, Soren realized abruptly. Ken put a hand on Soren to stop him.

Soren saw how she looked, but he still wanted to shake her until she told him what he needed to know.

“Where is he?” Soren asked, putting real menace into his tone.

“I don’t know!” Muriel said.

She collapsed in a heap, falling to the ground. Even then, Soren might have grabbed her, but he looked behind Muriel to see a small boy on the stairs. The boy was Alex’s age, but he had his thumb in his mouth, making him look several years younger.

Soren turned away in disgust. He walked down the steps, hearing Ken talk to Muriel in soothing tones. Soren looked down at his hands to see them shaking. He was surprised at the surge of violence within him. He doubted hitting Muriel would help, but some part of him wanted to do it anyway. And that scared him badly. He wasn’t that kind of person, was he?

He shook his head in an effort to clear it. He needed to focus on the task at hand. The way he saw it, there were two options. They could either wait there and hope that Frye returned or he could invoke Plan B. Waiting was dangerous for several reasons, the most important of which was that Frye might hurt or kill Alex and Sara. Hell that could have already happened. And if Frye returned without them, what then? Beyond beating Frye to a pulp, he wasn’t sure what they could do to get the information they needed.

That left Plan B. Soren returned to the car, and pulled open the small bag he’d left on the floor. He’d gathered the items in a rush, using the information that Terry had given him. He just hoped they would work.

He walked back to the house, still feeling like he wanted to murder someone. Muriel saw him headed up the steps and began crying again. Ken turned and put a hand on his chest.

“Get out, Soren,” he said. “You’re not helping.”

Soren looked at him flatly and held up the bag.

“It’s time for Plan B,” he said.

Ken looked confused and Soren brushed past him to enter the house. He stepped over Muriel without looking at her and ignored the kid still watching him from the steps.

Ken followed after him.

“What’s Plan B?” he asked.

“We’re going to summon the shade,” Soren said.

Ken’s eyes widened.

“You said that would be dangerous,” Ken said.

“It is,” Soren said. “But I don’t see another option. Clearly the shade can’t interfere with Frye directly or he would have done that by now. But maybe he knows how to find him.”

“Or maybe he’ll kill us both,” Ken said.

“I’m ready to find out,” Soren said. “The question is, how much are you willing to risk to find Sara and Alex?”

Ken didn’t hesitate; he just nodded.

“Do it,” he said.

“Good, because I need your help,” Soren said. “I researched this just in case. It’s not hard, just risky.”

He stepped over into the Frye’s dining room, aware that both Muriel and her son were watching them both. He would have preferred they weren’t there, but he worried if he started talking to Muriel he might become distracted again.

He had what the ritual required: the shade’s name, a photo of something he cared deeply about, and the summoning crystal Terry had once given him.

“You might need it one day,” Terry had told him. Soren was beginning to wonder if the old man was psychic.

Soren pushed a stack of magazines off the coffee table and emptied the contents of his bag. There was a large purple crystal and a photo of Bobby Strode from Peter Strode’s police file. Soren looked back up at Ken.

“Just one more thing,” he said.

“Hurry, dammit,” Ken said.

Soren stepped into the dining room and followed into the kitchen. He searched through several drawers until he found a large knife. Ken looked alarmed when Soren returned to the living room with it in his hand.

“Does this involve human sacrifice?” he asked.

Soren didn’t respond directly.

“Hold out your hand,” he said.

“What the hell are you going to do?” Ken asked.

“Slice it open,” Soren replied. “The ritual requires the ‘blood of an honest man.’ I’m hoping that’s you.”

“Why can’t you do it?”

“I’m known for a lot of things, but honesty isn’t one of them,” Soren replied.

He looked into the police officer’s eyes, an unspoken question on his lips. How much was he willing to sacrifice? Ken seemed to know what he was asking. He pushed up his sleeves and held out his arm.

He opened his palm directly above the crystal. Soren didn’t wait, but quickly used the knife to make a thin gash on the hand. Ken winced, but never took his eyes off Soren. He waited a moment until blood began dripping onto the crystal.

“Peter Strode,” Soren said, “I call upon your shade! I call upon your soul! I demand your presence.”

“You sure ‘demand’ is the word you want?” Ken asked.

“Peter Strode, you miserable fucking failure. How many boys have to die on your watch? I demand you come!”

“What the hell are you doing?” Ken asked.

Soren didn’t answer. Anger is a powerful emotion, and the only one he knew for sure the shade still experienced. It was his best way of getting the creature’s attention.

Soren looked down at the crystal which was now covered in Ken’s blood.

“Peter Strode! This is your final chance to be useful,” Soren yelled. “I summon you to come to us or I curse you to eternal damnation. Peter Strode, I summon you in your grand-nephew’s name. I summon you!”

There was no warning, no mysterious wind or curtains blowing to announce his arrival. One minute Ken and Soren stood in the living room, with Muriel and her son still in the hall. The next a white-haired man with silver eyes was standing next to Soren, staring at him with pure hate on his face.

“Good,” Soren said. “We need your he…”

He never finished his sentence. Instead, the shade of Peter Strode reached out and grasped Soren by the throat. He began choking the life out of him.

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Chapter Fifteen

 

 

Sara squared off across the playground with the monster who resembled Richard Frye.

She wanted to scream, but she forced herself to stop. That was clearly what he was hoping for. His face was hideous to look at, yet still somehow recognizable. His eyes were larger now and had been pushed further apart on his face. Red, angry blisters had somehow burst through his skin, covering his forehead, cheeks and chin.

The worst features were the two identical gashes on each side of his face. The wounds were roughly three inches wide, and Sara could see blood and tissue underneath, but none of it oozed down his face. Instead, the gashes seemed to pulse with a strange rhythm, growing wider apart and then shrinking again. They reminded her of gills on a fish.

“I’ve only let Muriel see me this way once,” Richard said. “She was being a real bitch at the time. Oh, how she screamed. She can’t stand the sight of blood. I had to work for weeks to convince her it was a dream, but it was worth it. It kept her from questioning me again.”

“You are not touching my son,” Sara said.

“Yeah? How are you going to stop me?” Richard said. “Shout all you want; no one can hear you. Do you even know where you are? This playground is notorious. Three kids died here, all at different times and under different circumstances. Oh, this was a long time ago, in the 1950s. People didn’t get quite so worked up the way they did now. They knew that accidents happened. But after the third death, nobody wanted to come out here anymore. The county never tore it down, but it was abandoned decades ago. There’s nowhere for you to go. Feel free to run, of course, but I guarantee I can run faster.”

Sara didn’t answer. Instead, she ensured Alex was behind her and set herself into a defensive crouch.

“Oh, I get it,” Richard said. “You think whatever bullshit yoga class you go to will help. Well, surprise, but I’m not planning to work with brute force here.”

Richard reached into his jacket and pulled out a gun.

“I know, a little disappointing, right?” he said. “To see a monster use a gun — it’s too normal. But it is the most efficient route, I’m afraid. So why don’t you step away from your boy and we’ll make this quick.”

He waved the gun at her, but Sara didn’t move. He pointed the gun toward her head.

“I said move away,” he said more menacingly. “Unless you want me to blow a hole through both of you.”

Sara stared at the creature, but didn’t budge an inch. All her instincts said to block Alex, but in that moment she realized that he was her shield, even if he was behind her. If she stepped away even for a moment, Richard would shoot her and grab Alex.

Richard looked angry, but didn’t fire.

“Fine picture this is,” Richard said. “A mother hiding behind her little boy. How noble.”

“If that’s what it takes to save him, I’m fine with it,” Sara said. “You are not laying a hand on him. How’s your aim, Richard? My dad taught me how to handle a gun and I’ve got to say, you don’t seem that comfortable with it. You’re afraid to shoot me because it might hit Alex.”

Richard kept standing there, holding the gun trained on her. He seemed to be weighing a decision.

At that moment, there was a shout from the forest.

“Sara!” a familiar voice called. “Sara, are you out there?”

Sara opened her mouth to respond, and the gun went off.

 

 

*****

 

Soren wasn’t sure what would kill him first: the lack of air or a snapped neck.

The shade aggressively squeezed Soren’s throat, and despite his best efforts to punch the creature, nothing seemed to move him. Ken was trying to heave the shade off Soren, but to no avail. His blows didn’t seem to hurt the spirit at all.

It took a moment for Soren to realize why. The shade had turned corporeal but he was primarily a creature of psychic, not physical, force. Trying to punch and hit him didn’t have much impact. The only way to free himself was to use his mind.

Unfortunately, the second Soren tried it, he realized just how difficult it was going to be. The shade’s psychic energy was like a brick wall, and Soren wasn’t nearly skilled enough in that arena to break through it. If he tried to mentally battle this creature, he was going to lose.

Instead, he shifted gears, filling his mind with images of Alex. At first it was difficult, but Soren let the brief memories of Alex overlap with those of Sarah when she was a girl. He pictured Sara, John and Soren playing pirates in her backyard when they were kids.

If you don’t stop this, Alex and his mother will die, Soren thought at the shade.

Soren was starting to see tiny black dots in his vision. He was running out of oxygen.

You are the boy’s last hope, Soren thought. A creature has taken him.

I KNOW A MONSTER HAS TAKEN HIM, a voice came back in Soren’s mind, and it felt like someone was shouting directly in his ear. I TRIED TO WARN YOU.

Help us stop him, Soren thought, with the shade’s hands still around his throat.

He heard a gun go off and knew Ken was trying to shoot the shade, but it had no effect.

IT’S TOO LATE, the shade replied. IT HAS THEM BOTH.

There’s still time, Soren said. Guide us to him.

The shade’s grip seemed to slacken a little.

I don’t trust you, the shade thought at him, but it was no longer a shout.

[_I needed the blood of an honest man to summon you. You don’t have to trust me, but you know you can trust him. Please, Peter, we’re running out of time. You can still save Alex. Don’t let him become the next Alastair. _]

The shade abruptly let go of Soren’s throat, and Soren fell to the ground. He lay on the floor coughing and gasping for breath. Ken still had his gun trained on the shade, but Soren waved at him to put it away. Behind them both, Soren saw Muriel and the boy flee from the room, perhaps worried about what would happen next.

But Peter seemed to be appraising Ken for the first time.

“You’re a police officer,” the shade said out loud.

Ken nodded slowly, looking uncertainly between Soren and the spirit.

“He doesn’t trust me,” Soren said. “I told him he could rely on you.”

Ken seemed to pick up on what was required.

“I love Sara and Alex,” Ken said. “I’m trying to protect them.”

Soren didn’t know if the shade believed Ken, but he sure did. The words cut through him for reasons he couldn’t explain. For just a second, he wanted to rage at Ken and tell him how unworthy he was to be with Sara and serve as Alex’s dad. He couldn’t hope to fill the shoes of John Townes.

But John was dead, and even if Ken wasn’t up to his caliber, did that mean those shoes had to remain empty? And was that the only reason Ken’s words felt like a knife in his gut? He pushed that thought away. Right now, none of that mattered. Ken might be Soren’s only chance to save Sara and Alex.

The shade nodded at Ken.

“I believe you,” he said.

“Then take us to them,” Ken said. “We don’t have any time.”

Soren stood up, still holding his throat.

“We need you to guide us to where they’re being held.”

“I can only get so close,” the shade said. “His power prevents me from seeing him clearly and keeps me at bay. I’ve only been aware when he’s been physically close to the boy. That was why I was trying to lead him away. I didn’t know which adult around him was the dreamweaver.”

“Can you help us fight him?” Soren asked.

“Only if you weaken his power,” the shade replied. “Somehow he puts up a barrier I can’t get through. He would need to be significantly hurt for me to get past it.”

“Understood. Just take us as near as you can and then point us in the right direction,” Soren said. “We’ll do the rest.”

Soren wasn’t sure what he expected the shade to do. He assumed they would have to walk or drive behind him as he led them to the spot. Instead, the shade reached out and grabbed both Ken and Soren by the arm.

Soren abruptly found himself standing in a copse of trees. He looked at Ken, who was just as startled. The shade put a finger to his lips and gestured toward an opening some thirty feet in the distance. Soren could hear the faint sounds of people talking.

They needed to approach cautiously. Hopefully, Richard wouldn’t see them coming.

He heard Sara’s voice drift over to him and felt a surge of hope. She was still alive.

“You are not laying a hand on him,” Sara said.

Ken started running toward the voice before Soren could stop him.

“Sara!” he shouted. “Sara, are you out there?”

He may be honest, but he’s a fucking idiot, Soren thought.

That was when he heard the gun go off.

 

*****

 

Sara felt the shot whiz past her ear.

She barely had time to react before the gun went off again. She turned and shoved Alex to the ground, throwing herself on top of him. But these shots weren’t directed at her. Richard was firing into the forest.

He ran toward her, crossing the distance as she lay over Alex, who was still trapped in his dream-like state.

Richard grabbed her and wrenched her off the ground. He put the cold metal of the gun to her skull. She thought he would kill her, but instead he shouted at the trees.

“Come out right now or I blow her head off!” he screamed.

A large figure came out of the forest and she was relieved to see it was Ken. Somehow he’d found her. She also knew he had likely called in backup. They might survive this mess after all.

“Give it up, Frye,” Ken said, holding his own weapon out at arm’s length. “I’ve got officers headed to this location. They know your identity. There’s nowhere for you to run.”

“Bullshit!” Richard said. “Where are we? How did you get here? There’s no way you could have followed her here. I know how you got here, and if I’m right, that means you don’t know where you are.”

Sara saw Ken hesitate just long enough for her to realize that what Richard said was true. He didn’t know where they were, which meant backup couldn’t be on the way.

He opened his mouth to respond, but Richard pressed the gun further against her temple, digging it into her head. She cried out and Ken stopped walking forward.

“Don’t lie to me again,” Richard said. “Are you alone?”

Ken started to say “yes” — she could see it on his lips — but Soren walked out of the woods.

“No,” he said.

“Is that it?” Richard asked, his lips curled in a snarl.

Soren shrugged.

“Unless you count the shade who brought us here,” he said.

Richard was nodding.

“Knew it,” he said. “He’s the only one who could find me. God, how I hate that fucker.”

Of the four of them, Soren seemed the most relaxed. Ken was still holding his gun out uncertainly, but Soren appeared to be unarmed. He stood there with his hands held up almost casually, like he encountered this kind of situation all the time.

“Here’s how it’s going to go,” Soren said. “You’re going to let Sara and Alex go and we’ll give you a head start to escape.”

“No!” Richard said. “I hold all the cards here.”

“No you don’t, Dick,” Soren said, spitting out the last word. “Ken was telling the truth about knowing your identity. Even now, your wife is being questioned by police. We know what you are. You have one gun, we have one gun. You’re not getting out of this unscathed. And there’s nowhere for you to run.”

Out of the corner of her eye, Sara could see Richard smiling. Then he started laughing.

“I’m going to enjoy this,” he said.

“Enjoy what? Us kicking your ass?” Soren replied.

Sara glanced at Ken, who hadn’t responded. Then she understood why. The police officer was staring ahead in a vacant stare, his eyes glassy and unfocused. It was the exact expression that Alex had worn all evening.

Ken was asleep. Somehow Richard had done to him what he’d earlier done to Sara. He was trapped in his own dream.

She waited for Soren to respond, but when she looked back at him, he was now wearing a similar expression.

“Welcome to my nightmare, fellas,” Richard said.

“Let them go,” Sara said.

She tried to struggle against Richard’s grip, but it was too strong.

“But this is the best part,” Richard said. “This is where we get to see them kill each other.”

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Chapter Sixteen

 

 

Soren found himself standing next to a cabin by a lake. It took him only a moment to recognize it. It was the cabin where John had died. But it had burned down seven years earlier.

“Oh no,” Soren said. “Please not here.”

He struggled to remember how he ended up at the cabin, but his mind was fuzzy. He found it difficult to think, as if some serpent had coiled around his brain and was squeezing it.

Had he been talking to someone? He fought to remember, but it slipped away, just beyond his reach. An image of Sara flashed through his mind. But she wasn’t there now. He was standing alone outside the cabin.

And that was where he intended to stay. There was no way he would go back inside that place. He’d nearly died there. And what he had lost… he couldn’t face it.

Near the entrance to the cabin, he saw a rusted old sign. He took a step forward to get a better look. The letters were faded but he could still make out the message: “Closed at Dark.” The words jarred him. That sign hadn’t been here before. He’d been to this cabin dozens of times. He’d seen the sign somewhere else recently, but not here. As he looked at the sign, he realized he was in a dream. Worse than that — a nightmare.

At that moment, he heard a shout from inside the cabin. For a split second he thought it might be John calling to him. But the voice was far younger and more high-pitched.

“Help me!” Alex screamed.

Soren forgot all about his plan of staying put. He sprinted to the door, nearly ripping it off its hinges. He ran inside to find the cabin in shambles. The table and lamp by the door had been knocked over, the sofa had been yanked from the wall, and several pictures had fallen to the floor. Someone was tearing the place apart.

“Help!” Alex screamed again, this time from upstairs.

Soren ran without thinking, taking the steps three at a time. When he reached the second floor, he found a long hallway with several closed doors. An uncomfortable feeling of déjà vu settled over him, remembering hiding with John in one of the rooms off to the right. But he couldn’t think about that now.

“Alex, where are you?” he yelled.

There was no reply. Soren opened the first door on the right, which he remembered having two bunk beds. But the only thing inside was his old friend Mikey lying in a pool of blood. Mikey was holding his hands to his stomach, trying to keep his insides from falling out. He looked up when Soren entered and then reached a bloody hand out toward him.

“Help me, Soren,” Mikey said.

Soren shut his eyes. It wasn’t real. It was only a dream. But when he opened them again, Mikey was still on the floor, staring at him accusingly.

“Don’t leave me, Soren! Don’t leave me again!” Mikey yelled.

“I’m sorry, Mikey,” he said.

Soren stepped back and shut the door. He knew in his heart that Mikey was long past saving. He went to the next door to the left, dreading what he would find behind it.

Edward, another old friend, stood in the center of the room, staring at him. He was obviously dead, his flesh half rotted off his face. Soren could see bits of bare white skull underneath. Yet Edward’s eyes stared at Soren with a malicious intelligence.

“Welcome back, Soren,” Edward said.

He took a shambling step toward Soren and held out his skeletal arms.

“We’ve missed you,” Edward said.

Soren slammed the door. He was breathing hard and his hands were shaking. Whatever was doing this to him was trying to rattle him — and it was working. He couldn’t remember what he was supposed to be doing.

“Help!” Alex’s voice screamed, his voice coming from the end of the hallway.

Soren ran toward the door, knocking it open. To his relief, none of his dead friends were inside. Instead, he found Alex tied to a bed. His body nearly sagged in relief.

“Is that really you?” Alex asked.

Soren nodded his head and crossed over to him.

“You have to hurry,” Alex said. “He’s coming back.”

“Who?” Soren asked.

But he knew the answer. His mind felt sluggish, but with Alex in front of him, he could suddenly remember what had been eluding him. He had been at an old playground, facing off against… the dreamweaver. That was who Alex was talking about. Somehow the creature had forced him into this nightmare.

“I keep trying to wake up, but he won’t let me,” Alex said. “After mommy left, he brought me here. I’ve seen pictures of my daddy in this place.”

Soren started working on getting Alex untied, but the knots were tight.

“It was your grandparent’s cottage,” Soren said. “Your father loved it here.”

Soren succeeded in getting one arm free when he heard a crash downstairs. Someone started bellowing. Alex tensed up and Soren put an arm on him.

“I’m going to get you out,” Soren said. “I promise.”

He worked frantically at the knot on the other side of the bed as he heard more loud noises coming from below. He didn’t know if the dreamweaver could physically hurt them or not. The images he’d seen in the hallway had been threatening, but they hadn’t actually attacked him. Soren wondered if the dreamweaver’s whole plan was to simply try and scare him to death.

But now that he remembered what he was facing, he would be ready for whatever came through that door. It would probably be a zombified version of John, something that could terrify him and Alex both. But if he couldn’t hurt them, the key was trying to find a way to wake up.

There was another large crash, this one on the second floor. He heard a man’s voice yelling.

“Alex! Alex!”

Soren looked to see panic in Alex’s eyes. He managed to free the boy just as another figure came bursting into the room.

Ken looked hurt and bloodied and he was dressed not in his normal clothes but in an army uniform. It was torn in several places.

Some part of Soren was relieved to see it was Ken and not a zombie version of his friends, until he noticed Ken’s eyes. They were wild with fear, darting from side to side but not seeming to focus on anything.

“Ken, it’s just me,” Soren said.

Ken pulled a gun out from a holster on his side and pointed it at Soren.

“Step away from Alex,” he said. “You need to die. I’m going to make you pay for what you did to my men.”

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Chapter Seventeen

 

 

Sara watched Ken point the gun at Soren.

Neither man said anything. Ken moved in slow motion and she watched Soren raise his hands in the air just as slowly. Their actions reminded her of marionettes, except there were no strings.

“How do you like my little play?” Richard said, still holding her with the gun pressed against her head. “It’s harder than it looks to pull off. You have to make sure they move only when you want them to. And it’s not easy to induce just the right amount of fear and guilt to have them do what you want. It’s more of an art than a science.”

Richard eased up just enough that Sara could look to the side. He was barely paying attention to her any longer. He seemed to be concentrating hard on the two men in front of them.

But what drew her attention were the gashes on his face. They seemed to be pulsing at a high rate of speed. It was like watching a fish gasp for breath on dry land, gills flaring.

“Let them go,” she said. “You’re finished. Didn’t you hear them? The police know who you are.”

But Richard just laughed.

“I wouldn’t worry about that,” he said. “If I have to, I can disappear again. But I don’t even know if that’s necessary. I could shoot both of your would-be heroes myself, of course, but that won’t do. I need at least one of the bullets to come from the cop’s gun. When the police eventually find you, they’ll assume it was some kind of shoot-out. They won’t know what happened to the boy. And I’ll have an alibi that I was really in Baltimore.”

His voice sounded oily and overly familiar, but also strained. Though he was talking to her, his focus remained on Ken and Soren, neither of whom had moved. They stood there as if they were a movie that was paused, with Ken aiming his gun at Soren.

Yet she had the sense that both men were fighting what was happening to them. Ken’s face was covered in sweat and the arm holding the gun was shaking. There was no physical signs from Soren, but she thought when he had raised his hands, he was moving even slower than Ken. She hoped it was a sign of resistance.

She needed to do something, but she was still trapped in Richard’s grip. She felt it loosen slightly again, but not quite enough.

He had stopped talking to her and was looking at Ken and Soren. The gashes on his face were moving even faster now. They repulsed Sara, but she was beginning to wonder if they were the key to what Richard was doing.

Maybe the gashes were connected to his ability to induce nightmares. When she’d first seen him walk out of the forest, they’d been pulsing slowly. But now they were going full tilt. Aside from the shade, this was the first monster she’d ever encountered. Yet she couldn’t shake the feeling that the gashes were the key to its powers.

“Enough chit-chat, boys,” Richard muttered. “Fight each other.”

Soren and Ken responded instantly. It was as if Richard had released some invisible grip on them both. Ken aimed his weapon, but Soren crossed the distance between them in a flash. He launched himself onto the cop and the two began struggling on the ground.

“That’s it, that’s it,” Richard said.

Sara decided to use Richard’s distracted attention to her advantage, trying to elbow him in the stomach with her left arm. But Richard easily stopped the blow, and grab her tightly.

“No, no,” he said, whispering fiercely in her ear. “Your death will come, but first you have to watch your two boyfriends die.”

 

*****

 

Soren raised his hands to the sky as Ken aimed the gun at him.

“Ken, I didn’t do anything to anybody,” he said. “I don’t know where you think you are, but we’re here to save Alex. This is a dream and we need to break out.”

Ken looked over at Alex for a split second.

“Did he hurt you?” Ken asked.

Alex shook his head.

“He’s right, Officer Ken,” Alex said. “This is just a dream.”

“I saw him!” Ken said. “I saw what he did to my unit. He’s not a man; he’s a monster.”

“Ken, it wasn’t real,” Soren said. “I’ve seen plenty of strange shit in here myself. You have to trust me.”

Ken’s lips curled into a snarl.

“Why should I? I know you’ve been sleeping with her. I saw that too.”

Soren looked again at Alex, who wore a confused expression. When he glanced up in Soren’s direction, Soren stuck out a finger on his hand and rotated it close to his temple in a classic “he’s crazy” gesture. Soren saw Alex give him a hint of a smile.

“Ken, nothing in here is real,” Soren said. “You have to break free.”

Soren could almost see him trying. His face was covered in sweat, and he seemed to be fighting against an urge to shoot Soren on the spot.

“No,” Ken said. “What I saw was the truth. You killed them; you’re going to take her from me.”

Soren knew he was out of time. Ken was a lost cause. He either made a move now or Ken was going to shoot him. He didn’t know what would happen in the real world, but he remembered the cop had an actual gun in his hand the last time he saw him. Soren didn’t like his odds.

He sprinted across the room, hoping his sudden movement would catch Ken off guard. The cop tried to aim his weapon, but Soren was too fast. He jumped at Ken, knocking him to the ground. The gun scattered across the cabin floor.

They landed in a heap, and Ken looked momentarily dazed. Soren made a move to go after the gun, scrambling across the floor, but Ken yanked him back and punched Soren in the face.

Soren felt like he’d been hit with a hammer. He cried out, putting his hand to his cheekbone. Ken tried to turn himself over, looking where the gun had fallen.

But Soren pounced on him, launching a series of blows at Ken’s head. He forgot what his real purpose was. He’d never liked Ken, not since he’d first met him at the police station. The idea of him and Sara being together was repulsive to him. And this was his chance to beat the guy to a bloody pulp.

His first two punches connected, hitting Ken in the nose and bloodying his face. But the cop held up his arms to block the next punch and then kicked out with his right leg, sending Soren sprawling.

When Soren landed, his neck snapped back, hitting his head hard against the floor. He tried to get up again, but his vision was blurry. He could just make out Ken crawling across the floor to the gun.

Soren frantically wiped his eyes and tried to clear his head. When his vision cleared, he saw Ken’s hand close around the gun.

“No, no, no, no,” Soren said.

He made another attempt to rush Ken, but he knew it was going to be too late. As he moved, he saw the cop, still lying on the floor, bring the gun around and aim it at Soren’s head. He was a dead man. He saw a sudden blur of motion and then the gun went off.

 

*****

 

Sara watched Soren run toward Ken as he lay on the ground pointing the gun. She knew he’d never make it in time, but there was nothing she could do.

At that moment, however, she saw Alex break free, suddenly running again. Both she and Richard screamed at him.

“Alex, no!” she shouted.

But her fears of Alex being caught in the crossfire didn’t come to pass. Instead, she watched as her son kicked the gun Ken was holding just as the weapon fired.

She saw Soren go down, but she didn’t wait to see what else had happened.

As soon as she knew Alex was safe, Sara slammed her foot onto Richard’s leg as hard as she could, and then knocked the dreamweaver’s gun out of his hand. It went flying into the grass.

“You bitch!” he screamed.

But Sara rounded on him, delivering a swift kick to his groin. Richard doubled over and Sara didn’t hold back. She kneed him in the head, sending him sprawling backward. She looked at Alex to make sure he was still safe, but then hurried to keep up her assault.

Sara pounced on Richard and punched him in the two gashes on his face, hoping her guess about his abilities was enough. She hit him again and again. The dreamweaver began screaming in agony.

“Get off me,” he yelled.

But instead she drove her fist into the gash and tore at it with her nails. There was a ripping sound as she dug into his flesh. She grasped on the ground with her left hand for something — anything — that she could use as a weapon and found a small stick. She jammed it quickly into the gash on the other side of his face.

Richard shrieked an inhuman cry. Before her eyes, she saw his face shimmer and change. The gashes disappeared and the eyes moved closer together and he became human again. Sara didn’t care. She kept on hitting the creature.

“Mom?” came a voice from behind her.

The man below her was bruised and bloodied, his eyes dazed. One of the gashes had healed around the stick, leaving it still sticking out of his face. Sara yanked it out and blood began pouring down his face. She stopped punching him, turning to Alex, who was staring at Richard in shock.

She stood up, giving Richard one more kick for good measure as she did so, and ran over to Alex. She hugged him close.

“Are you okay?” she asked.

Alex nodded, his eyes wide.

“Sara, what happened?” Ken asked.

Ken seemed confused, like he’d just woken up. She supposed he had. She looked at the fallen figure in the grass on the outer edge of the playground.

“You shot Soren,” she said. “See if he’s okay.”

Ken ran over to where Soren lay.

Sara wanted to make sure he was safe, but she couldn’t bring herself to let go of Alex. She took his hand as she searched for Richard’s gun on the ground. When she found it, she aimed at the creature, who was still moaning in the grass. She couldn’t risk the creature getting back up again. This had to be finished.

She glanced back to see Soren sitting up and felt a wave of relief wash over her. He was alive, at least. It was only then she let herself admit she couldn’t have borne it if he’d died too. These past few days, she realized how much she’d missed him being a part of her life. When John died, she’d lost her fiancé and her best friend.

Soren nodded toward her reassuringly and Ken pulled him up. Soren put his hand on his shoulder but didn’t appear badly hurt.

“I thought you were a crack shot,” Soren said to him. “But it just grazed me.”

“You can thank Alex for that,” Ken said. “He kicked the gun just as I was aiming at you.”

Soren looked over at Alex.

“Nice work, kid,” he said. “You saved the day.”

Despite everything that had happened to him, Sara saw Alex beam in response.

He should be crying, she thought. How is he holding up so well?

She thought of what Richard had said. “He hasn’t told you, has he?” Sara wondered what secrets Alex had been keeping. But now was not the time to find out.

Soren and Ken walked over to where Richard lay.

“What are we going to do with him?” Ken asked. “If we take him to jail, he’ll just dream his way out again.”

“I don’t think it will be our problem,” Soren said.

Sara realized he wasn’t looking at Richard any longer, and followed his gaze past her into the woods.

The shade emerged from the trees, striding forward. She hugged Alex tighter, still worried he might try to take him. But the shade merely nodded once in their direction as he headed toward Richard.

Both Ken and Soren stepped away from the dreamweaver. When Richard looked up, barely conscious, and saw the shade, he whispered one word. “You.”

“Me,” the shade replied.

He looked at Ken, Soren and Sara.

“It would be best if you left,” he said. “The boy shouldn’t witness this.”

“Thank you,” Sara said. “Thank you for saving my son.”

The shade only nodded again.

“Go,” he said.

Sara wrapped her arm around Alex’s shoulders and the four of them began walking away. As they did, they heard Richard begin shouting.

“No!” he screamed. “No, no, no, no, no.”

Soon after, even that short, repeated word became indistinct and turned into indecipherable caterwauling.

It took Ken and Soren several minutes to figure out their location. Neither man had been carrying his cell phone when the shade brought them to the forest, and Sara had no recollection of arriving there. They walked for ten minutes and came to a road that Soren recognized and knew would lead them back to his apartment.

Even from that distance, they could hear Richard’s screams.

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Chapter Eighteen

 

 

Soren didn’t relax until they were back inside his apartment.

He didn’t want to tell the others, but he was afraid the shade wouldn’t be finished with them. From what Terry had told him, they didn’t just fade away. They needed to find peace. He thought killing Richard would grant peace to Peter Strode, but perhaps he was wrong.

If the shade came back angry, they’d be in no condition to fight. All four of them were exhausted. They would just have to hope it was over.

When they got inside, Sara looked Alex up and down and then pulled him in for a long hug. Soren expected him to squirm or be embarrassed, but he hugged his mom back tightly.

“Is this just a mom and son thing, or can I join in?” Ken asked.

Sara nodded, tears running down her cheeks, and Ken grasped the two of them in a giant bear hug. To Soren, they looked like a big happy family. He stood staring at them, uncertain what to do. He felt like he’d intruded onto a private moment. He crossed through the living room and walked into the kitchen to fix himself a drink.

Sara appeared a moment later.

“You get a hug too,” she said.

She pulled him in before he could respond and for a moment, the past seven years were wiped away. He hugged her back tightly, afraid this moment would end too fast.

When she finally broke free, she held his face in her hands.

“We’re friends again, okay?” she asked. “I know that after the funeral, you needed some space, but… John wouldn’t have wanted you to live like this.”

“Like what?”

She cocked her head to the side and gave him a skeptical look.

“Alone and isolated,” Sara said.

“I just thought it was better if I left you alone,” Soren said.

“For me or for you?” she asked. “I don’t blame you for what happened to John. I know that doesn’t take the guilt away for…”

She paused.

“Look, we should talk again later,” she said. “My point is that John died, but you didn’t. Don’t become a shade yourself. Don’t hide in the shadows for the rest of your life, Soren.”

Soren nodded, but his face was grim. He gestured toward the living room, where Ken and Alex presumably still were.

“What are you going to do about the cop?” he asked.

She gave him an inscrutable look. He felt bad for asking. It wasn’t any of his business. And what was he suggesting? That she stay a nun for the rest of her life?

She didn’t answer, but hugged Soren again. He closed his eyes. Had he been a shade, he would have found peace in that moment.

 

*****

 

Peter Strode appeared the moment Ken, Sara and Alex left Soren’s apartment to return to their homes.

As before, Strode suddenly stood in the middle of the living room, appearing out of thin air. Soren looked at him without surprise. He presumed that summoning Strode had enabled the shade to find him again.

“It’s done,” the shade said. “The dreamweaver is destroyed.”

“I hope it was long and painful,” Soren said.

The shade merely smiled. Soren found it disturbing.

“I don’t know how Ken will explain Richard’s body in the park, but I’ll let him figure that out,” Soren said.

“He will appear human now,” the shade replied.

Soren paused for a moment, uncertain what would happen next. The shade didn’t appear about to attack, but it was still a possibility. He decided to ask his questions anyway.

“If you’d successfully taken Alex, what would you have done with him?” he asked.

“Hidden him,” the shade replied. “No harm would have come to the boy.”

“Hidden him where?”

The shade didn’t reply.

“Why didn’t you haunt Richard Frye?”

“I did not know who the dreamweaver was,” the shade said. “I only knew when he was close to Alex. I could see the boy in my dreams, just as I saw Alastair.”

Soren wanted to ask how someone who was dead could still dream, but let it drop. It was the least surprising revelation of his day.

“So you showed up to take him away,” Soren said. “Then why did you show up when I appeared?”

“I was lingering in the park, hopeful I would see the boy again,” the shade replied. “I did not think it likely, but I had nowhere else to go.”

For a brief second, the shade looked sad. Soren thought about the afterlife he was living.

“I don’t know what would release you from this world,” Soren said. “But I talked to Ken. He’s going to call the Strode family in the morning and let them know the truth. He’ll tell them the police believe Richard was going to kidnap your grand-nephew, and you acted to save him.”

The shade’s face was impassive, but Soren thought he detected a look of relief in his silver eyes.

“If it helps, we’ll tell Alastair’s family as well,” Soren said. “Maybe it will at least bring them comfort to know their son’s killer was brought to justice.”

“I am grateful for this,” the shade said. “I was… incorrect in my assessment of you.”

“You were trying to save Alex,” Soren said. “That’s what matters.”

“The boy is special.”

“The dreamweaver told Sara that as well,” Soren said. “But can you tell me how? I don’t see anything obvious.”

“You will discover it one day,” the shade replied. “I just pray by then it is not too late.”

Soren frowned. He found the shade’s words vague, but they didn’t sound good.

“Too late for what?”

“To save yourself, to save her,” the shade said. “He is the only one who can bring you what you most desire.”

“I don’t understand.”

“I must leave now for the unknown,” Peter said. “Our time is running out.”

He stared at Soren with his unsettling eyes.

“I thank you for your help in letting me lay down this burden,” he continued. “And I offer you one word of warning.”

Soren almost wanted to stop him. He knew from bitter experience the dangers of fortune-telling. Knowing what was to come in the future was often more of a curse than a benefit. He didn’t want to know. But the shade spoke before he could say anything.

“The Council is hunting for you,” the shade said. “They are very close. And when they find you, they will make you pay for what you have done. They will make you suffer.”

The shade vanished as suddenly as he’d arrived, leaving Soren speechless. From any other person, the words would have felt like a threat, yet he sensed no hostility from the shade. It was simply a prophecy, one that portended dark days ahead. He didn’t know who “the Council” was or why it wanted him, but he knew what he had to answer for, and that was enough.

He couldn’t think about that now. Nor could he sleep, despite his exhaustion. He felt strangely wired and more connected with the world than he had in weeks, maybe years. The shade’s dire warning aside, he felt satisfied. Alex and Sara were safe and the bad guy had gotten his just desserts.

He sat down at his computer and opened his e-mail. He expected the usual spam, but instead found a message clearly addressed to him. It was a new case with a mysterious intruder, a man in distress, and disturbing signs of the supernatural. It sounded perfect.

Soren clicked the reply button and got to work.

 

THE END

Did you enjoy this novella? Please leave a review here! Every review makes a difference.

 

If you liked Closed at Dark, you’ll love Carnival of Stone, the second novella in the series. You can receive it for FREE by signing up for Rob’s newsletter here!

 

 

When a small town is under siege from a horrific monster, only one man can help…

Supernatural investigator Soren Chase is having a rough day. He narrowly avoids being murdered by a pair of trigger-happy leprechauns (yes, leprechauns) before taking a case to investigate the disappearance of a graduate student in the mountains of Virginia.

But when Soren arrives in the normally sleepy hamlet of Hilltop, he finds the situation is far worse than he imagined. He’s up against a creature unlike anything he’s encountered before and it will take all his skills—and working with an unlikely ally—to survive.

Carnival of Stone is a stand-alone novella in the Soren Chase series that can be enjoyed by any reader who loves urban fantasy, mystery and suspense.

 

 

Also don’t miss the first full-length title, The Forest of Forever, which is now available from Kindle Press.

In The Forest of Forever, Soren’s investigation into the haunted Reapoke woods may be his most dangerous case yet. Hired to find a missing girl and unlock the forest’s secrets, what he discovers is far darker than he imagines and forces him to confront his tragic past. Buy it on Kindle here!

 

 

 

 

Soren Chase’s story continues in The Pretender, available here!

 

 

Sign up here to ensure you don’t miss future releases!

And for another great series (that shares connections with this one), check out The Sanheim Chronicles, Rob’s highly-rated bestselling Dark Fantasy novels for Kindle. Available also on audiobook.

 

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*Acknowledgments *

 

 

This story is what happens when you spend too much time on playgrounds.

First off, I know that playgrounds are supposed to be bright, happy places, but have you ever passed one in the dark? All those shapes, like a slide or the “net” detailed here, seem ominous and creepy.

Secondly, all the talk about “stranger danger” has left me feeling anxious even when it is a sunny day. I usually have one eye out for somebody who shouldn’t be there. A year or two ago, my wife told me that people on the parent’s listserv were reporting the existence of a “white-haired man” who was stalking kids. Several people reported encounters with him in and around the area.

I was certainly bothered by the stories — I still am, because for all I know, the guy was perfectly real. Yet at a certain point I began to wonder if he wasn’t an urban legend. Most of the people detailing stories about the guy hadn’t actually seen him; they’d just known someone who had. Either way — real or imagined — I spent a good chunk of my time at playgrounds keeping an eye out for anyone who could be “the white-haired man.” You worry about something long enough and eventually it becomes a story.

There are two people who made this novella possible.

The first is my wife, Maia. She was understandably skeptical that in addition to writing a full-length novel (The Forest of Forever) I could also turn around and write two novellas to accompany it. I assured her not to worry: I was going to keep the novellas short and sweet. And I’m here to tell you that I failed completely. This endeavor turned out to be far longer and tougher than I imagined. The only reason I survived was because of Maia’s help, love and support. Maia was also the novella’s first reader and suggested several ways I could improve it.

Secondly, I want to thank my editor, Evelyn Duffy, who helped shape this novella into what it is. When I initially wrote it, I kept trying to keep it short. The result was that I missed several opportunities to expand the story and make it more exciting. Evelyn was the one who challenged me to return to the narrative to flesh several parts out. She suggested a couple ideas that were only hinted at in the original draft, including Sara’s nightmare of a fire in her room and a dream confrontation between Soren and Ken. And once I wrote those parts, they seemed so essential to the story I couldn’t fathom why I’d tried to skip over them. In short, the novella is much, much better as a result of her comments.

I’d also like to thank my beta readers: Brian Gill, David Miller and Daniel Wolfe. All three made valuable suggestions and I’m grateful for their help. As an aside, Brian is the narrator for the audiobook versions of A Soul to Steal and Band of Demons, the first two novels of The Sanheim Chronicles. If you haven’t checked them out already, I urge you to give them a listen. He does an amazing job.

Finally, I want to thank Travis Pennington, my cover artist, who nailed this cover in his first attempt. I am fortunate to work with such talented people.

As for what’s coming next,The Forest of Forever, the first full-length Soren Chase novel, is now available from Kindle Press. If you liked the novella, I think you will really enjoy the novel. Additionally, Soren faces two very different kinds of monsters in [Carnival of Stone, _]the next novella in the series—available now! Finally, don’t miss Soren’s next full-length adventure, _The Pretender, has just been released! Check it out here!

Please be sure to sign up here so you know when future books are released.

I want to thank everyone again for all their support, including those who nominated [_The Forest of Forever _]for Kindle Scout, left reviews for any of my novels, tweeted about the books, etc. I could not do this without your enthusiasm.

 

Rob Blackwell


Closed at Dark

When a mysterious creature targets a young boy, only paranormal investigator Soren Chase can stop it. But can Soren save the boy in time? For Soren, the case is personal. The boy's father was John Townes, Soren's best friend who died in a supernatural attack several years earlier. Soren will do anything to save John's son, but he must act fast. Because the kidnapper has a mission of his own, and he's willing to destroy anyone who gets in his way... A prequel to the full-length novel The Forest of Forever, Closed at Dark is a self-contained novella that can be enjoyed by anyone who loves urban fantasy, mystery and suspense.

  • ISBN: 9781370471911
  • Author: Rob Blackwell
  • Published: 2016-08-02 15:40:14
  • Words: 37591
Closed at Dark Closed at Dark